Employability skills are generic, or transferable, skills or qualities highly valued by employers, such as team working, communication, problem-solving, resilience, creativity, and a “can-do” attitude.
There is no statutory requirement for schools to provide such skills but it is, of course, in the students’ and prospective employers’ best interests to provide opportunities for them to develop these skills. Qualifications, technical skills and experience can be acquired, but if an employee lacks a good work ethic and the ability to communicate effectively, then he or she will probably be less effective in the workplace.
Employability skills give students the resources to cope with the wide range of demands and experiences that they will meet in the workplace. To give school-leavers the extra edge before entering the workplace, Congleton High School provides them with an Engineering Achievement Course qualification that includes these employability skills. This qualification does not help the school in terms of its league table rankings but it does demonstrate to employers that the student is ready for work.
Teaching employability skills
In school, we promote the development of employability skills across the curriculum. We have linked these to our engineering specialism and have posters around the school, reminding students and staff that these skills and qualities are important in all subjects, particularly STEM. We organise a wide range of extra-curricular and curricular STEM activities designed to help students to develop these skills and technology is used to help students to design a solution to a problem, often through consultation with others.
Working with employers
Many of these activities are supported or organised by companies. For example, each year a 6th form team takes part in our Engineering Education Scheme, in which a company sets them a real problem to solve over several months. The project requires them to work effectively as a team, find a creative solution to the problem, communicate with engineers and other adults and present their work to a panel of experts.
Links to employers and work experience are very important. Opportunities for work-related learning, through work experience and activities at school, have motivated students, enabled them to develop employability skills, improved their knowledge of how companies work, and increased their confidence.
We organise regular events and engage with local employers to increase the opportunities available to our students for work experience and employment after school. We want to work with companies to ensure that students leaving our school have precisely the skills that local businesses want, whether that is sector-specific or more general and transferable skills.
Using this strategy Congleton has developed links with companies such as Bentley Motors, Siemens and AstraZeneca where graduates are now working.
We quickly identify students that are more suited to a vocational pathway. Fourteen per cent of year 12 students are on pure vocational courses and a further 21 per cent of students have at least one vocational course in their Level 3 options. Twenty five per cent of students in year 13 are on pure vocational courses and a further 16 per cent of students have at least one vocational course in their Level 3 options.
We also work closely with schools in our area to ensure that the education experience is seamless from nursery through to secondary so that when students reach 16 they have the skills they need for the workplace or they can stay on and study a vocational or academic course with us. We set aside one afternoon a week to devote to something other than academic pursuits, which has been ideal for those keen to teach or work in caring professions.
For some of our year 12 students who are at risk of disengagement we devote at least one day a week to vocational activities and we will expand this in the forthcoming year to two days a week. We arrange one week of work experience for our year 12 students and we provide A level students with the chance to secure high-quality placements directly relevant to their career plans, for example, in law, science or at a veterinary practice.
We have a wide range of vocational courses linked to industrial placements. For example our local garage runs its own Mazda MX5 team that races at Oulton Park. By developing a relationship with our local garage we have secured an opportunity for one of our pupils to work with them on the motor racing team.
The number of students from Congleton entering the workplace at 18-plus has increased recently due to university tuition fees and to the wider availability of Apprenticeships and the associated publicity about them. Opportunities to do Apprenticeships have meant we are getting students progressing to them at 17-plus, rather than at the A2 level. This explains some of our other successes – students who at 17-plus would previously have dropped out of education and might have sought casual jobs are now securing Apprenticeships.
Advice to other schools
To increase the attractiveness of school-leavers to employers, schools can provide an extensive programme of work-related learning and ensure students recognise the importance of the “softer” transferable skills.
We deliver careers guidance throughout each key stage as part of the PSHE programme, which is enhanced by visits to local employers, careers conventions and higher education institutions or talks and workshops run by them in our school.
The many vocational courses that we run also provide sector-specific talks and visits which include careers advice. Many students have the opportunity to meet with an independent careers advisor to draw up an individual action plan.
Parents can also attend meetings with the careers advisor and attend academic mentoring meetings throughout the school. In 6th form, academic mentoring meetings focus heavily on “what next?” so that parents can support their child’s plans.
We believe that employers will employ school-leavers for their ability to do the job and then train them to build up the skills they need to progress. While formal qualifications are of course very important, someone with qualifications, but who is unable to work effectively with others, or communicate, is less useful.
Schools need to be preparing students for a rapidly changing world in which they will have to be flexible and resilient to achieve success. They must remember that formal qualifications alone will not prepare students for the challenges ahead.
CAPTION: Prepared for life: Students and staff from Congleton High School, where skills education is a core focus
David Hermitt is executive principal of Congleton High School, an 11 to 18 specialist school of engineering, and chief executive officer of Congleton Multi-Academy Trust in Congleton, south east Cheshire.