Building essential skills in school

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

How can we help our students to build key essential skills to support them in their schooling and beyond? Tom Ravenscroft advises

It is well-known that the transition between years 6 and 7 can see young people slipping backwards in their academic achievements. The move from primary to secondary school is always a challenging and faintly mysterious time.

As a teacher I remember seeing first-hand a strange metamorphosis as our new secondary school joiners initially appeared to shrink into themselves before emerging again.

Sadly this process is not always a springboard to success at secondary school. All too often, and to stretch a metaphor, our young people also appear to shed a lot that matters in that process.

There is strong evidence that young people lose previous learning and experience a difficulty in transferring some underpinning skills from primary to secondary, like students’ ability to communicate effectively, to solve problems and think creatively, to get on with others or to set goals and stick at them.

In the Skills Builder Partnership initiative (see further information), we term these essential skills and can see what happens between years 6 and 7 – we have found that, on average, a year 7 teacher perceives their students’ essential skills to be six months behind those of year 6 students, rather than the year ahead that we might expect.

This isn’t surprising in many ways. We know that individual performance is strongly affected by stress. We also know that transferability can be a challenge – and that the change in environment and peers can have quite a profound impact on how students demonstrate skills like presenting or team-work.

The good news though, is that through our work we have seen hundreds of schools who are bucking this trend. In these schools, individual teachers are able to avoid a backwards step in their students’ skills, and instead use those same skills as the strong foundation on which to make for a successful transition.

What makes a difference?

In a busy secondary school, with competing priorities and high levels of complexity it can easily end up feeling like there is little that can be done around these skills. But the good news is that there is a lot that you can do. Here I have pulled together some of the things that underpin their success.

Be clear and consistent

The most important thing is to be absolutely clear what it is that you want to build for the young people in your classroom. One of the biggest challenges that teachers report to us is cutting through the confusion of the dozens of things that they could be building to really focus on key areas.

We strongly advocate a focus on a small number of highly tangible skills, rather than broad attributes or characteristics like confidence, resilience or bravery. Focus on eight skills consistently: team-work, leadership, problem-solving, creativity, listening, presenting, aiming high, and staying positive. We’ve found that eight skills is an upper limit of the number that can realistically be a focus.

Set a baseline

We all respond to seeing tangible progress. It is exactly the same with essential skills. We have found that all successful skills-building programmes start by setting a clear baseline of what students can and can’t do at the outset. It is essential for focusing efforts on filling skills gaps most effectively, for reminding students of what they can already do, and for making progress more motivating.

Be explicit

At secondary school, most of our teachers have to capitalise on short bursts of time to build these skills. Often this means using form periods or drop-down days or squeezing skills-building around other lesson content.

When you have so little time there is no choice but to teach these skills as explicitly as possible. This means avoiding the naïve practice of, for example, hoping that any group endeavour builds teamwork skills or that mind-mapping builds creativity.

Instead, by using your insight into what students can already do, and what they are struggling with, you can explicitly fill in the gaps. For example, conflict resolution strategies to boost team-work effectiveness or different leadership styles.

Lots of practice

While a lot can be achieved in a short amount of time, ultimately these skills are for your students to develop. To really hone their skills they will need to feel the ownership of them. This will make them more likely to seek-out opportunities to build those skills, and practise them. After all, they might be creating a presentation in their history lesson, taking part in a school play or playing in a sports team. You can multiply your impact if you encourage your students to make the connections between these experiences and use them to reinforce their essential skills.

The best way of encouraging practice is by keeping the skills front-of-mind. Doing that can be as simple as having a visual reminder of the eight essential skills up on the wall of your classroom. Or, depending on your class, giving certificates or other rewards for great examples of using or practising the skills.

Bring it to life

Finally, although year 7 might seem a long way from leaving school there is a real value in emphasising that these skills are not just about success in the classroom. Rather they are exactly the same skills that employers, colleges and universities call for – and which are often cited by successful entrepreneurs as being crucial.

So do think about how you can link these skills to experiences beyond the school gates. Perhaps there are business volunteers regularly coming into your school – you could quiz them about the skills they use and how they use them. Or when building students’ understanding of the working world and their different career options, you could highlight not just the academic qualifications needed to thrive in those routes, but also the essential skills.


Together, these principles can support a focused and highly effective approach to building the essential skills of your year 7 students. We’ve already seen the impact that such an approach can make.

Our Skills Builder Assessment tool, completed by teachers, shows that over a year, students can make two years’ of progress on their essential skills – closing the transition gap and putting students back on the trajectory for success.

We all want our students to successfully navigate the transition into secondary school. We’ve seen that by building and reinforcing essential skills, we can ensure that our students are ready to make the most of the opportunities that secondary school affords.

  • 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


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin