Why paper qualifications are no longer enough

In an increasingly competitive market for jobs and higher courses of study, all-round achievement rather than mere attainment is at a premium
27th January 2012, 12:00am


Why paper qualifications are no longer enough


Adecade or so ago, teachers could bid farewell to their senior pupils, knowing that a solid set of Standard grades and Highers would get them into the college or university - or even job - of their choice.

But with jobs scarce in a struggling economy, and fierce competition for fewer college and university places, admissions officers and employers are increasingly looking beyond academic qualifications when it comes to selection.

Applicants are now also required to show evidence of “soft skills”, like stickability, commitment, the ability to work in a team, timekeeping, good communication and people skills, and a range of “wider achievements” to prove their employability or suitability for a course.

“We have an expectation of them having additionality to standard qualifications,” explains David Fairweather, director for curriculum and academic planning at Motherwell College, which has introduced a general policy of interviewing prospective students to improve the match between student and college.

Universities also go beyond an applicant’s Higher results, looking more closely at personal statements which list their non- academic achievements, says Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland.

“This can help to give tutors a better sense of the person behind the application and indicate a pupil’s dedication and passion for a subject as well as other skills like teamwork or bedside manner that might make them well suited to the demands of a particular course,” he says.

School-leavers aiming to go straight into a job are increasingly required to demonstrate “employability skills” which will allow them to adapt quickly to their new role and workplace.

“Employability skills have always been hugely important and (employers) have always looked for individuals to possess them. However, I think that over the last year, with rising youth unemployment, these skills have become even more important,” says Lauren McNicol, policy executive of CBI Scotland.

“Successful businesses continue to require people who are adaptable, can work harmoniously and collaboratively with others, who have differing views of the world, can solve problems individually and in teams, can learn new things and can communicate and sell ideas,” she explains.

Because of this, the government has given soft skills, in the form of wider achievements, a prominent place within Curriculum for Excellence - most notably outlined in its Building the Curriculum 3 and 4 documents. “As young people move into S4, they will continue to develop the four capacities to become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens,” states BtC 3.

“To do so, they must continue to have opportunities that reinforce their broader learning and achievements through a range of experiences including enhancing skills for life and skills for work, an active and healthy lifestyle and an appreciation of Scotland and its place in the world.”

The opportunity to develop skills for learning, life and work is an entitlement for all learners, says Anne Jardine, director of learning and community at Education Scotland. The skills outlined in BtC 4 - employability and soft skills - were embedded within the experiences and outcomes across all eight CfE curriculum areas, she adds. “Employability has to be at the heart of the Scottish education system.”

Miss McNicol says: “Over two-thirds (70 per cent) of CBI members surveyed for our most recent education and skills survey want to see the development of employability skills among young people at school and college made a top priority. This rises to 82 per cent when looking at graduate employment.”

Some evidence is now being collected through e-portfolios (TESS, 20 January), which are designed to capture not only attainment but also achievements in a wider sense. Organisations in the voluntarycharitable sector are also becoming more involved in providing awards and programmes for schools - some relating to sports and outdoor activities, others to volunteering and specific skills training.

These not only take pressure off school resources, but also chime with government guidance to offer experiences in partnership with outside agencies. Often, to ensure relevance to their young participants, these programmes lead to awards and certificates pupils can add to their portfolios and CVs.

The Prince’s Trust has now run its XL programme in schools for around a decade. Finlay Laverty, senior head of business development, says the activity programme fits in so well with Curriculum for Excellence that it is now delivered to more than 2,500 pupils at around 100 schools across Scotland.

XL can be organised in an intensive six-week to three-month programme, or over a two-year period, replacing one subject from S3 onwards. The young people who take part are often those who struggle with the demands of mainstream curriculum, who are disruptive, isolated or bullied, lack parental support, or are just not engaged with education.

They undertake activities in five areas:

personal and interpersonal team skills;

active citizenship, where young people get involved in their communities;

enrichment projects, such as Outward Bound residentials or healthy eating;

enterprise and entrepreneurship;

self and work, which focuses on employability skills.

The aim, Mr Laverty explains, is to give an advantage especially to those young people who do not have many other qualifications. “Get those core skills in the right place at the right time - that is what we are hoping to do. It is about confidence, positivity, and having that can-do attitude about how they face the job market.”

A survey by the trust in 2011 showed around three-quarters of young people felt their speaking skills had improved; the same number felt more motivated and better at setting and achieving goals; 86 per cent said their confidence had improved; and 92 per cent felt their ability to work with others had improved.

Nine out of 10 participants move into a “positive destination”, whether that is further schooling, a place at university or college, or work, after completing the XL programme, says Mr Laverty.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, probably the best known of its kind, has seen an unprecendented rise in uptake recently, with some schools now moving from a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award club to a whole-school approach.

“We have some very interesting evidence of employers understanding that the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award as a brand means things like stickability, resilience, teamwork, and that is hopefully highly attractive,” says Barry Fisher, director of the awards in Scotland.

Queen Margaret Academy in Ayr offers participation in the bronze awards to all S3 pupils. Head Moira Gray says her message to parents is that it is the soft skills learnt through DoE which sell individual people to employers, universities and colleges.

“They are looking for an extra dimension to distinguish young people who may otherwise be on a level playing field. It always has played a role, but now that the contested nature of college and university entrance and employment is increasing, young people’s interpersonal skills, their demonstrated ability to do other things, is of increasing importance.”

Providing this opportunity to all pupils requires commitment and drive from school staff, she says, adding that her staff are very supportive. “There is a growing recognition in schools that achievement is equally as important as attainment, and that is the big change. One of the key aspects of the culture of CfE is that education is not just about attainment. It is about educating the whole child on a much wider basis.”

But with soft skills and achievements now included in the national curriculum, and demand for school-leavers to provide evidence of their command of them, comes the need to formalise their assessment - not just for those activities run by outside partners, but also for those run by schools themselves.

Schools want to be able to recognise what pupils have achieved, says Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland. But while there are increasing numbers of certificates pupils can attain, there remains a question over how much schools should be assessing them.

“There is a world of difference between saying `I participated in a team exercise’ and how good you were at it, how much you participated and what the level of activity was, or the quality of participation,” says Mr Cunningham. “The big issue is developing the awareness of young people that these are the skills they are developing.”

Another difficulty lies in ensuring that as many youngsters as possible get the opportunity, because these skills are not delivered directly through the subject agenda: “It’s broader than that,” he says.

If it becomes part of the “accountability agenda”, it could be something schools have to do, despite many soft skills being better developed in an “open, relaxed atmosphere”, he adds.

The Scottish government is currently examining how to record achievements such as the John Muir Trust Award, Asdan and Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards as part of its STACS exam-reporting process. The Curriculum for Excellence management board is also investigating how to produce a profile for pupils at the end of S3 and beyond which reflects these wider skills alongside attainment.

But progress is being made. The Scottish Qualifications Authority is introducing a range of new awards this year, available from Access all the way to Higher level.

“The demands of the 21st century mean we need to provide more options for students of all abilities to allow them to build a portfolio of qualifications to succeed in learning, life and work,” said a spokeswoman for the SQA.

“To achieve this, we have created nationally recognised, flexible qualifications which provide recognition for wider achievement in areas such as employability, personal development and leadership.”

The qualifications are designed to be taken alongside the new National 4 and 5 courses to help develop and recognise skills which will increase learners’ chances of success.

The new awards will be introduced in schools, as well as some colleges. Motherwell College is about to introduce the Intermediate level volunteering award, and its curriculum and academic planning director, David Fairweather, believes it will help students to prepare for “responsibility, further education and employment”.

Whatever their new-found popularity in the Scottish education system, it remains to be seen whether these awards and certificates will gain parity of esteem with “traditional” qualifications. Experts agree that, as an addition to other qualifications, they can give one candidate the edge over another. But whether they will ever gain equality - for example, counting as the fifth Higher in a university application or job application - is more questionable.

Ultimately, most university courses would require minimum academic standards as a prerequisite for entry, Mr Sim stresses. “Non-academic achievements might make the difference where there are two equally-able candidates, especially given sustained pressure on places, but one is not likely to replace the other in terms of importance.”

NUS Scotland’s president, Robin Parker, cautions: “Our worry is it will be those who are most likely to go on to university already, from the best schools and the most advantaged backgrounds, who will get these chances, further extending the divide between them and the most disadvantaged.”


70% the proportion of employers who want to see the development of employability skills among young people made a priority at school and college

55% the proportion of employers who find weaknesses in school-leavers’ self-management skills

20% the proportion of employers who find weaknesses in graduates’ teamworking skills.

82% the proportion of employers who value employability skills.

(Source: CBIEDI Education and Skills survey 2011)

16,640 the number of young people who started a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme in 2010-11.

43% the increase in participation in Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards since 2008

(Source: www.dofe.orgscotland)

2,500+ the number of young people who took part in the XL programme throughout Scotland in 2010-11.

(Source: Prince’s Trust)


The Eco-Schools scheme has wide take-up. Now, the employers’ organisation, the CBI, wants to see an employability-school standard introduced along similar lines.

Its report, Action for Jobs, launched at the end of last year, argues that while schools successfully prepare “bright children” for further academic study, that model does not work for “those youngsters who primarily need the competencies to succeed in the workforce rather than the purely academic skills designed to support further study”.

Schools have to be driven by an employability mindset, it adds. An employability standard, developed along similar lines to Eco-School status would “set out a clear goal for schools to work towards, based on engaging with business,” it says.

“Such a move does not require a whole new bureaucratic system. In design, it is an extension of a model that has already worked well in schools - in particular in the sustainabilityEco-Schools field - and it is one that businesses will recognise from Investors in People.”

To reach the standard, schools would have to demonstrate links with businesses, as well as their success in a variety of indicators, including participation in work experience placements, careers advice, curriculum content and training in work-relevant skills, such as project working and presentation skills.

“To foster take-up, an element of funding should be linked to measures of employability,” the report says. This could be done through distribution of already existing funding streams in favour of schools that engage in these positive employability programmes.


Brannock High in Motherwell has been piloting SQA personal development courses for the past three years after two successful active research projects. The first focused on those pupils in S3 who were, according to headteacher Robert Colquhoun, disaffected with school.

It offered them an Intermediate 1 level personal development course which would give them credit for their activities and deliver important life skills, in areas such as home economics, personal finance and employability. The young people also got involved in peer-mentoring, school activities week, and the management of a showcase event.

The second project launched a Higher course in personal development to a group of high-achieving senior pupils, who got involved in the development of business partnerships, school modernisation projects, and developed leadership and presentation skills by delivering formal presentations to professional conferences.

The school has now rolled out personal development as a curriculum choice from first year, where self-assessment and e-portfolios, delivered by ICT staff, are at the heart of the course.

The idea is to recognise pupils’ experiences and wider achievements, says Mr Colquhoun, and make the youngster “think more carefully about the intrinsic learning that goes on”. PSE has too long been “a period youngsters didn’t quite value”, he adds.

By the time pupils reach the Credit stages of these courses, they will be able to look back on a number of years of “self-reflection”.

“If we truly believe in Curriculum for Excellence and want kids to be confident and courteous and so on, I think we need to be better at how we package that up for our youngsters and how we sell it - and personal development is a really good selling tool for youngsters in mainstream school,” he says.

In due course, he hopes the new courses will be afforded appropriate recognition post-school. In the case of his five pupils who achieved a personal development Higher three years ago, he is “sure” it attracted the attention of the admissions officer at the university.

Original headline: Why the call for `employability’ skills just keeps getting louder

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