In recent weeks, education secretary Nicky Morgan has said on more than one occasion that she wants to see schools instil character, grit and resilience in young people alongside a knowledge-based curriculum.
For too long, successive education secretaries and politicians have at best ignored and at worst denigrated what they describe as “soft skills” as worthless and lacking rigour.
What is far more likely, however, is that these qualities and basic human traits have been set to one side because they are too difficult to assess, measure and attach a currency to for use in performance tables.
Yet, educationalists know better than anyone the importance of developing personal and interpersonal skills. We see it in our day-to-day work with children and young people – how they interact and work with others, how they form and retain their friendships, the manner in which they meet the challenges of learning in the classroom, how easily they get up again after being knocked down in life.
These skills are vital if we are to produce properly functioning citizens who occupy a worthwhile place in society, and for the creation of a productive, contributing workforce. Without all of these elements, in combination with high standards of academic achievement, we cannot possibly hope to compete in a competitive global economy.
The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, led by Alan Milburn, made some important observations in its last report, acknowledging that the most successful schools looked beyond exam results and league tables.
The report states: “Though qualifications are the most important dimension of education disadvantage, the challenge goes beyond exams. The chances of doing well in a job are not determined solely by academic success – the possession of character skills like persistence and ‘grit’ also matter.”
Headteachers told the commissioners that it was less important to them how many GCSEs school-leavers achieved and at what grade, than the extent to which their students, particularly those who were most disadvantaged, would thrive and succeed in the outside world. For schools with high Pupil Premium funding, this presents a delicate balancing act of ensuring pupils leave with good qualifications but also those vital life-skills that will see them through in life. With appropriate support and teaching both can be achieved.
Yet, Ms Morgan is saying one thing and doing another. Despite her apparent enthusiasm for character-building, she is considering devaluing tried and tested qualifications that develop personal effectiveness and life-skills, and plans to spend millions on new projects instead.
Many of the courses that already fulfil the outcomes she espouses are approved by Ofqual and are successful not just in preparing young people for adulthood and work, but also in improving their ability to learn. In many cases, pupils’ GCSE grades have been enhanced as their confidence, attitude and approach to learning have improved. It is hard, therefore, to imagine more contradictory policy-making.
The biggest impact of devaluing courses will, of course, be on learners who have special needs and learning difficulties, for whom these types of courses provide the skills and tools that make the difference between independent living and the prospect of gaining employment or a life-time of reliance on family or state. It is not the first time that a secretary of state has forgotten these children in the clamour to remember the dates of historic battles.
If Ms Morgan is serious about the acquisition of skills, and about raising future generations of academically rounded, and social and emotionally balanced young adults, then it is time for all political parties to acknowledge that skills-based competence does matter, and it does count. It is time to carry out a national skills audit to find out what we know as a nation; what we can do – and what we can’t do – and where our expertise and experience lies.
Competing with Finland this week and Shanghai the next for grades in international performance tables cannot be the way forward. How can we plan and execute educational reforms without first seeing the bigger picture, or knowing exactly what our strengths and weaknesses are as a nation?
Maggie Walker is chief executive of the awarding organisation ASDAN.