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How many core skills can be balanced on a pinhead?

Just what are these "core skills" that everyone seems to be talking about? I have been asking all who urge their importance on me to give some specific examples. Those who could - and interestingly quite a few could not - offered anything from basic arithmetic to appropriate attitudes. This has left me puzzling over where they have come from and whether, in fact, they exist.

As far as I have been able to discern, core skills began, as did so much of this kind of thing, with the Manpower Services Commission. They were essentially a list of remedial activities, like being able to "count items singly or in batches" or "locate the place where the work is to be carried out", for inclusion in the Youth Training scheme. In all there were 103 activities grouped into the four areas of "number", "communication", "problem-solving" and "practical".

They were carried over from the MSC to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications where they became bound up with skills transfer. So far "application of number", "communication" and "information technology" have become incorporated into general national vocational qualifications (GNVQs). In the new system of post-16 qualifications in Scotland, two more have been added - "problem-solving" and "personal and interpersonal skills". The Confederation of British Industry would include also "values and integrity", "understanding of the world of work and the world" and "positive attitude to change". "Competence in a modern foreign language" appears in other lists.

All this begins to look very much like good general education and one wonders, for example, how "communication" differs from English, and "application of number" from maths. The NCVQ claims core skills "demand application and contextualisation", whereas the subjects do not. But this is absurd since both are intrinsic to the subjects though views might differ on which applications and contexts.

When one cuts through the usual NCVQ twaddle, it emerges that "communication" consists essentially of being able to speak, write, read, and use illustrations. "Applications of number" runs from adding and subtracting to areas and volumes at level 1, to use of formulae at level 2, to calculations in plane and solid shapes at level 3.

Everyone would agree that "communication" and "number" are vital, but are they not English and maths under other names, and are they not central to the new national curriculum? It is possible that until its effects work through there may need to be some revisiting of these subjects for 16 to 19-year-olds, but past curriculum deficiencies should not be the basis for planning future post-school education.

One can understand employers being indignant if, after 11 years of schooling, young people do not have an adequate grasp of language and quantity. But, rather than the circumlocutions of core skills, they would be better served by ensuring the national curriculum is appropriate to their needs; children are not pushed up to secondary school without an adequate basis of English and maths; and the importance of these subjects is underlined by making them core subjects in a certificate based on GCSEs for 16-year-olds.

What of other supposed core skills? "Information technology" is the one that seems most like a set of skills to me. It relates to a powerful and rapidly evolving tool which everyone should learn to use. But curiously the NCVQ is questioning whether IT should be regarded as a core skill since they say it is itself analysable into "communication", "number", and "problem solving".

The NCVQ has also run into difficulties with "problem-solving". This is not surprising since it is self-evidently specific, depending on particular knowledge and expertise, and not an all-purpose recipe.

Psychological research has shown that experts are not only better at solving problems in their own fields, but also frame them differently. It makes no sense to certify someone who is good at solving care problems as a "problem-solver" in the expectation he or she will be capable of solving engineering problems. Similarly, it is doubtful whether other core skills, like team playing, are generic.

Where then does this leave core skills? They remind me of angels in medieval theology. Their existence was assumed. Belief in them only began to wane when it was realised that no one had actually seen one.

Similarly with core skills, we seem to be charging ahead fabricating detail without ever considering whether they exist. They may be a convenient shorthand for many desirable things, but they also confuse us in several very important ways.

* First, as with angels, core skills do not correspond to reality and distort our language and thinking. It is too easy for employers, for example, to avoid thinking about what they really want from education and just say core skills.

* Second, core skills muddy discussions about the role of general education in vocational education. There is a tendency to assume that this is covered by core-skills-talk, whereas the real issue is what content is essential to give a basis for progression and the flexibility to cope with a changing working world.

* Third, in an attempt to dissolve the differences between the academic and vocational, core skills are treated as a common denominator. On this view, all subjects and activities become vehicles for delivering core skills. Physics is no longer about physics, nor health and social care about health and social care; both become about communication, application or number, IT, problem-solving, team playing and whatever else may be tossed in.

"Core skills", in my view, is a needless digression. The subjects, skills and personal qualities which the category seeks to represent are, in themselves, very important. But framing them the NCVQ way is a potentially damaging distraction to Sir Ron Dearing and others as they face up to the difficult task of developing a coherent education and training system post-16.

Professor Alan Smithers is director of Manchester University's Centre for Employment and Education Studies.

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