Soft skills can’t be taught… but they can be learned

The current education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has been on a drive recently to promote ‘character education’. Adding the teaching of ‘grit and resilience’ to a teacher’s already growing workload is a big ask but a greater focus on employability and skills beyond the classroom mean that it is no longer enough to simply get every student a C or above in GCSEs..

As the number of young people going to university rises and competition for places is strong. In the most competitive institutions, even a string of As at A level won’t guarantee you a place.

Universities are looking for more than just academic ability – they want empathy, communication, teamwork. Or, at least, the capacity to improve on these.

But a policy push towards higher grades has meant that whilst academic achievement is on the rise, these ‘softer’ skills are falling behind.

Something needs to be done to stop this.

Recent surveys by firms such as Kaplan and CareerBuilder demonstrate that employers are finding it increasingly hard to recruit prospective employees, whether straight out of school, FE or HE. Their reasoning is that whilst education leavers are technically and academically able, their ‘soft’, transferrable skills – which are a necessary requirement in any workplace – are letting them down.

One of the surveyed organisations commented that graduates have “No real world experience”. Communication and teamwork are also increasingly cited as must-haves and today’s ‘generation Y’ just aren’t providing.

So what is the solution? We recently carried out some research into the university admissions process and found that whilst many universities see themselves as developers and facilitators of the soft skills, they want to prospective students that have the capability to excel both academically and non-academically.

Of course, where it is easy to measure capability in an academic subject through exams, it is far more difficult to measure someone’s empathy or ability to work as part of a team. The solution to helping students develop these skills lies in what universities use to measure them: the demonstration of participation in extra-curricular activities.

In the research, Karen Pichlmann, Head of Admissions at Bournemouth University, clarified why extra-curricular activities are such an important tool for universities to measure students’ capability with regards to soft skills. She commented that “many of these extra-curricular activities are crucial for university life as well as study. Students who have spent time away from home, looked after themselves, will do better”.

Non-academic activities represent a commitment on behalf of a young person that goes beyond the norm and is extremely attractive to universities and employers trying to mitigate drop-outs and resignations. There is no one set of extra-curricular activities that carries more weight than others, according to the research. Instead, what really matters is how a prospective student demonstrates the skills learned and relevance of the activity.

Helping your students develop a CV’s worth of soft skills doesn’t need to be costly or expensive, to them or your school. Instead, it is about encouraging and fostering in them a desire to explore other avenues outside of the classroom walls. For example, if they want to go into construction, a problem solving activity such as funding and planning a trip away would be of interest to future employers. For those wanting to study medicine or nursing, volunteering and doing outreach activities that help others will resonate with both universities and hospitals.

Teambuilding and communication activities can be carried out as part of a regular lesson. All it takes is a bit of creativity. Regular activities that often take place in the lead up to holidays, such as Christmas fairs, can also be used by putting the onus on students to plan and organise them. Not only is this an easy way to get them using a host of transferrable skills, it also takes the pressure off teaching staff.

The important thing to realise is that soft skills aren’t something that can be taught by demonstration; they need to be taught by participation. This can be done inside schools or outside of schools, but the most important thing to remember is that a practical-based approach is the answer.



Matt Eastlake is managing director of World Challenge

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