Building a whole-school approach to teaching essential skills

Written by: Tom Ravenscroft | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Tom Ravenscroft looks at how schools can adopt a whole-school approach to essential skills while still meeting curriculum demands

In 2017, the Sutton Trust released some remarkable statistics: 97 per cent of teachers said that essential skills like team-work, leadership, presenting and listening were as important for future success as academic achievement.

Furthermore, 35 per cent said that they saw these skills as being more important than academic results for future success.

The Sutton Trust results are reflective of an interesting wider shift. For a long time, employers have been calling for these essential skills. In 1989, the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) called for these skills to be at the heart of learning. Since 2008, they have annually reviewed the attitudes of employers about school-leavers and found continued concerns about the gap between the skills they need and those they see. But it is compelling now to see that the value of these skills is being recognised much more widely.

It feels that there is a strong consensus that these skills matter. The challenge then is why we are struggling to build them consistently. In the survey, 72 per cent of teachers said their schools should do more to build these essential skills – however there are numerous barriers.

Overwhelmingly, the barriers are logistical. There is no shortage of competing priorities at secondary school. Reforms to school structures and governance, new qualifications, life after levels, changes in teacher training routes and new statutory responsibilities can easily crowd out anything else. This is particularly the case when accountability measures are heavily skewed towards exam results.

There are also two more implicit barriers worth mentioning: the first is the assumption that sometimes these skills, valuable though they are, are really innate. That is, one is either a natural leader, team player or communicator – or not. Reassuringly, there is minimal evidence of this sort of precondition, although personality differences like introversion or extroversion can easily be confused with the underlying skill.

The second is that skills are slightly mysterious and are built in ways that cannot be fully understood. If this is the case, then teaching skills directly is very challenging. We then feel more comfortable falling back on extra-curricular activities that might indirectly build the skills – hoping that with enough activities, the skills will somehow “rub off”.

What is exciting is that there are a growing number of secondary schools which are demonstrating that it is possible to build the essential skills of every young person. All of these schools make a fundamental leap in how they think about these essential skills – they stop thinking of essential skills as something mysterious, and instead apply the same principles that we already apply to teaching two skills we feel completely comfortable with: numeracy and literacy.

Keep it simple

There are so many things beyond the academic that we want to build for our young people that it can risk becoming confused and overwhelming. Schools look to make the skills they build as tangible as possible, avoiding broad characteristics or general positive attributes. They focus consistently on a finite number of skills: team-work, leadership, creativity, problem-solving, aiming high, staying positive, listening and presenting.

Keep going

All too often we avoid focusing our efforts on students with exam classes. However, these essential skills are really built on a continuum, and need regularity and consistent reinforcement to really build them.

Schools like Reach Academy, an all-through school in Feltham, make time for every student to build the skills throughout their time in school – and make this commitment from the moment their students arrive at the school gate, to the moment they leave after their exams.

Measure it

We know that for effective teaching, it is vital to know what students already know or what they can already do so that we can then fill the gaps. Queen’s Park High School in Chester assess the skills of each student in detail at the beginning and end of each year, so that they can really identify where the gaps are. It also helps students to understand their skills better, so they can more actively seek out opportunities to build them.

Focus tightly

All the secondary schools who are doing this well make time for teaching the skills explicitly. Some do this through regular lessons – others, like Kingswood Secondary Academy in Northamptonshire, use punchy 10-minute exercises in form period. When time is short, rather than just doing more group activities, they explicitly teach aspects of teamwork including roles in a team, effective facilitation, managing conflict and evaluating performance. When correctly targeted, this approach really accelerates the progress that can be made.

Keep practising

Along with explicit teaching of the skills we also need to practise them. It is really important that both teachers and students understand what they want to achieve in their essential skills so that these can be reinforced in many different settings.
That’s made more possible when different experiences are connected through a consistent focus on the same skills and a clarity on what success looks like in those skills at different ages.

Bring it to life

Finally, these skills are only as useful as they are transferable. That means there is a real premium on being able to connect the classroom with the real world.

There are lots of opportunities to bring volunteers from business into the classroom with organisations like Founders4School among others helping to broker these partnerships. There are also opportunities to take students out of the classroom into the real world to visit employers.

These experiences should focus on highlighting to students the links between the skills that they are building in the classroom and how these are built in the wider world. For example, Bridge Academy in Hackney uses their partnership with UBS to ensure that their students are always seeing the purpose of the skills they are building, bringing volunteers from the business into school and also taking the students into that workplace.

Bringing it all together

So what is the impact of all of this work? When teachers assess the skills of students, we’re able to see what the impact is. The bad news is that without a structured programme, we see a gap opening up between employer expectations and the skills our young people are actually building. Without a structured programme, there is minimal progress over a year – our data shows progress effectively stalling between year 7 and year 9.

In contrast, when we see these principles being applied consistently, the results can be transformational. For example, last year at year 7 we saw students make two years’ worth of progress in a single year – putting them on the trajectory to have mastered the essential skills by the time they leave school. Teachers report that this progress also supports better engagement and attitude around school – creating immediate benefits too.

So, we can agree that these skills are essential but now, with the experience of hundreds of schools, we also know how to teach them. We hope you will join the growing movement in doing just that. 

  • Tom Ravenscroft is founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise and the Skills Builder Partnership.

Further information

  • The Skills Builder Partnership consists of more than 60 leading skills-building organisations as well as 130 employers and 330 schools who have come together to develop the Skills Builder Framework, which is designed to break down eight essential skills into teachable chunks, allowing assessment of progress. You can find tools and resources via
  • Life Lessons, The Sutton Trust, October 2017:


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