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Why we need to focus on growing non-technical skills as much as technical ones - Lynette Leith

20 July 2023

Lynette Leith - vice principal curriculum at Hull College and a Research Further scholar

In education, one crucial aspect that deserves our attention is the non-technical skill gap. From around the age of 7, the most academically able children in areas of high deprivation start to underperform in comparison to their peers who are less academically able, but are from more affluent areas. This shows up in non-technical learning, too. We know that the development of cultural and social capital is equally as impactful on student's progress and progression, and that for those whose education has been affected by deprivation and disadvantage, this set of skills may not have developed in a way that is conducive to traditional education and progression.

By non-technical skills, I mean the skills which sit outside of - , but are just as important as the technical and vocational subject skills - those soft skills, wider skills or perhaps employability skills that apply to all learning regardless of the subject. It’s important to consider this in a 21st century skills context, too. More and more employers are telling us that they value and look for thinkers, confident communicators, problem solvers, leadership skills and resilient employees. We do wonderful things to help students develop these skills during their time in college, but what if the development of these skills became central to our work, rather than wrap-around or embedded - which they often are.

It's an issue that holds significant weight, particularly for individuals who face socio-economic disadvantages and have already met educational hurdles. Students may have developed these skills at a different pace compared to their more affluent peers, making the need to "level up" in non-technical areas even more critical.

Let's take a moment to reflect on the changing dynamics of the job market. Non-technical skills are increasingly becoming key drivers for recruitment. Employers are recognising that success in the workplace isn't solely dependent on technical ability, but also on a wide range of personal attributes. Therefore, for individuals who have faced educational disadvantages, it becomes even more vital to strengthen their non-technical skill sets.

In other words: as economic sectors shift towards valuing non-technical skills in recruitment, it becomes imperative to level the playing field for those who have been historically marginalised both in an academic and non-technical context.

However, it's not just about acquiring new skills; it's about building upon the existing strengths of our students. We must acknowledge and enhance the unique talents and capabilities that may not align with tradition, but hold immense value in personal growth and success. These highly valued personal skills, when honed the right way, have the potential to propel students far in life. There case to argue that FE serves the most disadvantaged communities by nature, since we are often the second, last and sometimes only chance for students. The young person or adult who has overcome such challenge will undoubtably have a particular set of skills that has enabled then to navigate such challenging times – we should celebrate and elevate this.

Our cohort has by default overcome many challenges to get to FE in the first place, the innate personal skills developed in such an environment ought to be approached from a place of strength and be utilised in the classroom and curriculum design in a way that enables students to use, apply and develop these skills further.

By owning both the technical and non-technical skills space, we can provide a level playing field, nurturing and guiding students towards realising their full potential. By embracing an explicit approach that focuses on developing non-technical skills alongside academic and technical knowledge, we can equip our students with the tools they need to thrive in an increasingly competitive and interconnected world.

Furthermore, it's essential to foster an inclusive environment that values diversity and recognises the varied experiences and backgrounds of our students. By doing so, we create a platform where all student's unique abilities and talents can shine, irrespective of their socio-economic circumstances. Through creative curriculum initiatives and explicit pedagogical design, we can bridge the non-technical skill gap and pave the way for a more equitable society where more FE students access the wealth of opportunities available to them, and where FE is recognised as the game changer that it is.

So, as we continue to navigate the ever-changing landscape of education, let's make it our mission to not only provide a solid academic and technical foundation but also to prioritise the development of non-technical skills in a 21st century economy. By recognising and nurturing the inherent strengths of our students, we empower them to overcome educational disadvantages and unlock their true potential. Together, let's build a future where every individual can thrive, in all contexts, regardless of their background or circumstances.

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