Skills: Preparing them for life

Written by: Jon Clarke | Published:
CAPTION: Essential skills: Students taking part in the government’s two to three-week National Citizen Service programme (Photo: National Citizen Service)

Instilling and developing transferable, life-skills in our students is a priority for many schools. With a focus on outdoor learning, Jon Clarke discusses how his school tackles this challenge.

With increasing focus on academic attainment, it is no wonder teachers are often criticised by businesses for not developing students’ non-cognitive skill-set.

On a personal level and as teachers we all feel a duty to ensure students in our care leave school with the attributes they need to take on the challenges of the real world.

However, with league table competition and budget limitations, are we doing enough to respond to these criticisms or is there more to be done to develop and refine the skills that businesses are continually crying out for?

So, how can schools help to prepare students for working life both inside and outside the classroom?

Understanding what these skills are and how we can develop them both inside and outside the classroom is the first step to tackling the issue.

Much academic research has focused on the “skills gap” that has emerged between schools and businesses and the key skills that fall within this gap, identified by Harvard University as the “seven skills of survival”.

The skills include critical-thinking and problem-solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptation, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analysing information, and curiosity and imagination.

But how can we put these learnings into practice? I have been responsible for establishing learning outside the classroom in Walsall Academy for 10 years. Having tried and tested many methods from brokering partnerships with local businesses to taking students away on residential trips to the likes of Germany and Ethiopia, here are some ideas on ways teachers can ensure students are work-ready.

Active rather than passive learning

Independent learning is essential. Allowing students to take control of their own learning, evaluate information and then present to others is a great way of developing presentation and communication skills as well as team-work and leadership. Inviting others to comment and provide constructive criticism is great practice for the workplace and helps to build up a pupil’s resilience.

We don’t all learn the same way

Workplaces are crying out for well-rounded individuals who are aware of their own preferred learning styles yet who can also adapt and be flexible when required. Teachers should bear this in mind when planning lessons, tailoring each task so it can be interpreted by visual, kinaesthetic and auditory learning styles to ensure every individual has the opportunity to progress in each lesson.

Introduce work-related challenges

Another method we use frequently is introducing work-related tasks into lesson plans. In geography, for example, if we are looking at a flood protection scheme, we will ask students to take on roles of various stakeholders – a flood protection officer, local resident and environment officer, for example – and play out each person’s view of the scheme before reaching an agreement on what action should be taken. This instantly gets students thinking from a business mindset rather than seeing their learning as an isolated experience.

Connect students to real businesses

There is only so much progression that can take place in the classroom. Many students will have never seen a real business in operation so in terms of developing skills for the workplace, programmes that involve working directly with businesses are an obvious example and something which should be introduced at the earliest stage of their learning as possible.

At Walsall Academy we facilitate a business enterprise training week where students are given the opportunity to work in a team, develop their communication skills and then present back to businesses on their findings.

By placing students in real-world situations and contexts out of their normal classroom environment we find that learning is accelerated and the impact greater and more deeply embedded.

Encourage a whole-school approach

Out-of-classroom learning shouldn’t be confined to a single day out of the classroom or to one particular year group. Where you see the real impact of learning outside the classroom is when it is embedded within the ethos of a school, allowing students to progress and develop their skill-set year-on-year.

Our residential programme takes place annually from year 7 to 13, working in partnership with Outward Bound Trust.

Each year students build on and refine their personal resilience, leadership and communication skills. This has a clear progression in its development of the learner and their advanced skill-set immediately becomes the USP that sets them apart from other applicants for university entrance, Apprenticeships or employment.

Schools can’t do it all themselves

For schools that are unable to invest so heavily, external programmes can also be of great benefit. At Walsall Academy, we offer the National Citizen Service (NCS) to students, a two to three-week government-backed programme for 16 and 17-year-olds which costs no more than £50 per student. As well as its low cost to parents, the programme is run externally and so, critically, is not resource-intensive on the school itself.

The programme, which has been proven to increase personal resilience, leadership and communication, includes a residential week of physical challenges and team-building activities, followed by a second week in which students stay, typically, in university accommodation learning to cook and manage a budget for themselves.

The final stage of the programme – where students set up their own social action project in their local communities – is perhaps the most pivotal phase, particularly in terms of opening students’ minds and showing them what they are capable of.

The transformations we see in students when they return from NCS really are remarkable, particularly in terms of maturity and organisation, with many going on to become mentors for lower school pupils.

And it doesn’t stop there

Taking students away on expeditions and residential trips may seem a long way away from your daily lesson plans, yet in the case of learning outside the classroom, what goes on on tour, should not stay on tour.

Not only are the skills developed instantly transferable to how students conduct themselves in the classroom, teachers should also be using these shared experiences to their advantage.

For example, if a pupil is struggling to handle a difficult problem in a lesson, flagging up to them the challenges they overcame while away on a residential trip reminds them how transferable these skills are. Plus, having shared experiences to laugh and joke about once you return to school can help develop mutual respect and understanding. It almost becomes a social currency.

For teachers that cannot attend we make sure they are given a written report on students’ progress. This not only gives teachers an idea of the skills they should be looking out for and praising, but is evidence of the benefits of outdoor learning which helps with school assessments too.

Empower a ‘champion’

We should all be investing in the futures of our students – futures that go beyond A levels or university to work and employment. However, adopting a whole-school approach to non-cognitive skill development doesn’t happen overnight. There is no denying that taking students out of school involves extra time and administration from more than one member of staff.

From my experience, securing buy-in from a senior member of staff, trialling a simple scheme or external programme like NCS and then evaluating its impact in terms of students’ progress is a great place to start. In my opinion, Sir Tim Brighouse, the former London schools commissioner, summed it up completely when he said: “One lesson outdoors is worth seven inside.”

Once you can show your colleagues these tangible results and impacts, it should be much easier to broaden your horizons.

  • Jon Clarke is senior deputy headteacher at Walsall Academy.

Further information
For more information on the National Citizen Service, visit or email


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