Why is the debate on skills so polarised?


While many other countries value skills as highly as knowledge in their education systems, the UK is stuck in a rut. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw argues why skills are just a vital as knowledge to our students' futures.

Resilience – is this not the most important skill with which we must equip our students?

Risk-taking – do not all our young people need the ability to take risks in order to thrive in the modern workplace?

Problem-solving – has not the ability to think laterally and creatively become the trait most highly valued by employers today?

Handling failure – will we not all face failure in our lives and have to recover from set-backs?

Why is it that none of these skills, vital to 21st century life, are being prioritised within our new curriculum? 

Regular readers will know my position on the importance of life and employability skills. You will also know my frustration as we have seen the worth of these skills consistently devalued by educational and curriculum reform.

I genuinely fear for our future with an education system which considers knowledge to be so much more important than skills. I despair that the new national curriculum doesn’t seem to have any place at all for life or employability skills.

It perplexes me that in 2013 this debate is still so aggressively polarised; with knowledge and skills pitched against one another, and those who argue for skills-led education being dismissed as “anti-rigour”.

Like much of the rest of the world, we should have agreed long ago that an education system fit for the 21st century is one that prizes skills and knowledge equally, that recognises that students need more than facts, facts, facts to survive in the world – but that the facts still need to be there nonetheless.

The OECD said in its 2012 strategy report that “skills have become the global currency of the 21st century” and even the CBI has called on government to recognise the importance of honing the “behaviours and attitudes” of students. In its excellent First Steps report (http://bit.ly/16frMhI), the CBI said an “exclusive focus on subjects for study” would fail to equip young people with the skills which businesses say have “a critical role in determining personal effectiveness”. Its members identify three core skills – emotional intelligence, optimism and determination (which they say includes resilience, grit and tenacity).

The report states: “Developing a pattern of behaviour, thinking and feeling based on sound principles, integrity and resilience involves broadening our traditional expectations, using curricular and non-curricular activities to help bring out those qualities.”

Writing in SecEd this week, careers advisor Jackie Sherman clearly highlights the increasing importance of skills – of the 20 skills she lists as being “common requirements” for employers, only three are based in any kind of academia. The rest are all skills not taught explicitly in schools; most are ignored by our new national curriculum. They include skills such as communication, initiative, creativity, problem-solving, and self-confidence – these last two I would link to the art of being resilient.

Appearing in SecEd last year, Professor Tanya Byron discussed the “fear of failure” that blights many students. She says a risk-averse culture has led to students lacking emotional resilience (http://bit.ly/RTNm14). She added: “Risk-taking is important because it helps children to accept, understand and embrace failure. The times when you fail are often the most powerful learning experiences.”

The modern world has changed beyond recognition and is constantly changing still, with new employment fields being created all the time. Knowledge/subject study remain vital, but just as important are skills – it is the combination of the two that will create young people ready to take their place in the world.

And for me, resilience and the ability to handle challenge and failure is by far and above the most important skill we should be teaching. In the midst of a major recession, with record youth employment and huge pressure on young people as they come through education and into the workplace – a workplace that has never been so fast-paced or heaped so much pressure on its employees to adapt to challenge and change – it is these skills that will allow today’s students to thrive and succeed in their lives.


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