The core skills our young people need

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

We have a duty to think deeply about what it is that young people need to be taught and need to be able to do in a future where there will be very few jobs for life, says Dr Mary Bousted

A recent report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has confirmed that entries to arts subjects at GCSE level have declined over the past couple of years, following several years of gradual increases. The 2016 entry rates are the lowest of the decade.

This fall is deeply concerning. It is not happening because young people are choosing not to take art, music, dance and drama at GCSE, but because schools, whose performance is measured in the percentage of students taking EBacc subjects, are forced to limit student choice (often students are left with just one GCSE subject to choose to study in addition to EBacc subjects).

This is the most immediate impact of an arbitrary, ill-thought-through, accountability measure introduced for ideological reasons by the schools minister, Nick Gibb, whose obsession with a knowledge-based curriculum excludes any reasonable and reasoned consideration of what a national curriculum is for, what should it enable children and young people to know and do, and how should it prepare them for life in the 21st century.

While Nick Gibb’s thoughts tend towards a rose-tinted view of the past, imbued with certainties about the “best that has been thought or said” as the basis for the curriculum (without any serious consideration of which groups in society made the choice of what was “best”), other serious commentators’ thoughts about the curriculum take an entirely different direction.

Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the brains behind the Programme for International Student Assessment international education league tables, puts this existential challenge to education experts: “Perhaps the most challenging dilemma for educators in the 21st century is that routine, rule-based, knowledge, which is easiest to teach and to test, is also easiest to digitise, automate and outsource.” (Schleicher, 2012)

We are entering the age of the fourth industrial revolution. Robotics and automation are going to transform the way we work. We have a duty, as educators and as a society, to think deeply about what it is that children and young people need to know, and to be able to do, in a society which will change radically; for a future in which there will be few, if any, jobs for life.

And this thinking must involve a real consideration of skills. Because if we think that education is about filling pupils up to the brim with knowledge, then we will let them down.

We don’t know exactly what knowledge the students we are educating will need in their future. We do know that they will need to develop the skills and abilities to access knowledge to be life-long learners.

I am happy to provide a starter for 10 in the skills list. The core skills our education system needs to develop in students include:

  • Communication skills – and, most importantly, verbal communication skills which are under-developed as students spend so much of their time in school writing.
  • Interpersonal skills – including the ability to work cooperatively with others, in teams, to take responsibility, to assume a leading role, to listen to others and to value their contribution.
  • Excellent IT skills – including the ability to question “facts” on the internet and to challenge sources.
  • The ability to see connections between subjects and to manipulate knowledge in new contexts.
  • The ability to create, to make and to produce – applying theoretical concepts to practical outcomes.

These skills and abilities will not be developed unless they are thought about, planned for and assessed.

They can be taught through subjects, but they will not be developed simply as a by-product.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

Further information

  • Entries to Arts Subjects at Key Stage 4, Education Policy Institute, September 2017:
  • Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century: Lessons from around the world, OECD (Edited by Andreas Schleicher), 2012:
  • National Education Union:


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