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Can essential skills be taught? - Tom Ravenscroft

Tom Ravenscroft, Founder & CEO, Skills Builder Partnership

Skills are getting a lot of attention at the moment. Bandied about in policy statements, they’re called for as a driver of economic growth, to support the recovery from Covid, and most recently cited as a fix for the cost of living crisis.

And yet, despite the clamour for skills, there is a chasm between government initiatives to boost technical skill levels and the wider skills that employers and individuals are calling for. If you read the early Local Skills Improvements Plans you’ll see calls for individuals with skills to collaborate, to innovate, to problem solve, and to communicate. Too often, these skills are caught in a strange place – clamoured for by employers since the CBI’s ground breaking 1989 report but left to individuals to build through connections and good fortune.

Essential skills

At Skills Builder Partnership, we define essential skills as those highly transferable skills which are needed by almost everyone to do almost any job and which support the application of technical skills and knowledge. They sit between the basic or foundational skills of literacy, numeracy and basic digital skills, and technical skills which are occupationally specific.

These are skills which can be diced in lots of different ways – and, indeed, one of the early challenges with building them is just that. In twelve years of working in this space, I’ve lost count of the labels: soft skills, transferable skills, 21st century skills, life skills and more. That’s before we even agree what falls into that category.

In 2018, we set out with a Taskforce of leading organisations which cut across education and employment including the CBI, CIPD, Gatsby Foundation, the Careers & Enterprise Company, and Business in the Community. With the input of businesses, educators, and impact organisations, we created and tested the Skills Builder Universal Framework of essential skills. We alighted on eight skills: listening; speaking; aiming high; staying positive; teamwork; leadership; problem solving and creativity.

Importantly though, we went beyond just top level names and definitions to break down each of the skills into a series of sequential teachable and measurable steps, taking an individual from an absolute beginner to mastery. In this way, teamwork goes from being a broad concept, to 16 teachable and measurable steps including being able to structure team meetings, resolve conflicts, or allocate tasks and resources.

The impact of essential skills

The ability to reliably measure essential skills has opened up new opportunities to see their impact. The Essential Skills Tracker was launched in March 2022 and provided a comprehensive overview of the impact of essential skills across working life.

In collaboration with YouGov, a representative sample of more than 2,200 working age adults completed a self-assessment against the complete Skills Builder Framework, giving each a skill score between 0 and 15 – the median was 9.4.

In comparing individuals in the lowest quartile for essential skills with the second-highest quartile showed that on average they were earning £4,100 more than their peers. They were 42% less likely to be not in employment, education or training. And they even had a higher life satisfaction – an average of 6.5 against 6.0 for their peers.

However, we found clear evidence that these skills are not distributed equitably. On average, individuals’ skill scores peaked in the middle of their careers before declining again. They had lower skill levels if they had less engaged parents through their childhood, had attended a state school, or came from a less advantaged background. Individuals in better paying jobs were given more opportunities to build their essential skills further.

The case for building essential skills

Against such a strong case for having these skills, we have to ask why we are not building them: While 79 per cent of respondents in the Essential Skills Tracker wanted more opportunities to build these skills, only 14 per cent had benefitted from any structured learning programme to do so.

At Skills Builder Partnership, we have used the Skills Builder Framework for several years to measure the impact of structured essential skills teaching. What we find is that it is possible for all learners to accelerate their acquisition of essential skills: Our 2021 impact report showed that where best practices were followed, acquisition of essential skills went from 0.55 steps per year to 1.21 steps per year once a programme was established.

There are a growing number of great colleges who are demonstrating what this looks like in practice. Newcastle College is ensuring that all of its students understand the links between building these skills and future success, complementing their qualifications with the wider attributes to apply that technical knowledge in the wider world. Meanwhile, at New College Durham, every student is building and tracking these skills so that they can articulate them in the next stage of their lives. Likewise, Grantham College sees building these skills as a core part of ensuring that every learner, whatever their needs, is supported to progress and develop.

The principles for building essential skills

We have seen remarkable consistency in what highly effective colleges do when it comes to building essential skills, which we can formalise as six principles:

  • Keep it simple: Highly effective colleges are being clear on the essential skills that they want their students to build, and take every opportunity to reinforce them and raise their profile: from including them in reporting, to having those skills up on every wall in the college.
  • Start early and keep going: Every student needs to be building these skills throughout their courses – not just as a last-minute add-on before leaving the institution. That’s because the skills are more complex than we realise, and because mastery takes real time and application.
  • Measure it: Often overlooked, measuring these skills is critical. Measuring can be through self-assessment, building a portfolio, or scenario-based teacher assessment. What matters is that the stages of a learner’s development in essential skills can be quantified and tracked over time.
  • Focus tightly: There are many elements of essential skills that can be directly taught: for example, how to mind map, how to create and test hypotheses, or how to negotiate effectively. Teaching these skill steps directly is the most efficient and effective way of securing rapid progress here.
  • Keep practising: At the same time, the skills only become automatic with lots of practice so it’s important to apply explicitly them alongside other learning, whether solving a problem or communicating with a customer.
  • Bring it to life: Finally, the reason these skills are so critical and so powerful is because they can be applied across so many aspects of our lives. We see colleges using employer partnerships to bring to life these skills – through real-life projects for employers, and for students to hear from employees about how they really apply those skills.

Together, these principles support every individual to build their essential skills.

Where next

Initiatives like Think Further are critical for ensuring that the experience and insights which have been hard won can be mobilised to improve outcomes for all learners. Building essential skills is one such imperative: we know that essential skills can be transformational, we know that they can be built for individual learners, and we now know how this can be applied by a whole institution.

From our work with the Association of Colleges, we know that colleges are a critical engine in transforming individuals’ readiness for the rest of their lives. If we can make essential skills a key outcome for every learner, we will have made an enormous leap forwards.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.