'I was wrong: parents do want us to teach soft skills'

We need to ask why so few parents have bought into the idea of a knowledge-rich curriculum, says former No 10 adviser

Rachel Wolf

Subject knowledge

Recently I worked with trade association techUK to construct a survey of parents who work in the tech sector to ask about their children's education – and how it was shaping up as we approach the era of automation.
Of course, surveys on education by such organisations are not new. Every year the CBI and other employer groups produce reports that say our education system is not "fit for purpose". Usually, those reports centre on the fact that school leavers and graduates don't have enough of what we call soft skills – things like "interpersonal communication" or "agile teamworking" or "transferable skills". Often, this is coupled with an expressed view that future labour markets will increasingly prize these skills, making this a growing problem. 
I've always been very suspicious of these reports, for two reasons. First, because I have been persuaded by cognitive scientists who have found that so-called transferable skills are not actually very transferable across specialisms (such as from music to art). And secondly, because I am never sure that what they say is the same as what they do. If these were the skills in such high demand, why is that the biggest wage premiums are going to those graduates who have some of the most traditional skills out there: maths degrees, for example? Employers don't appear to value these skills when it comes to cold, hard salaries and hiring decisions.
The techUK survey, however, takes us away from the abstract and into the most concrete decision we make – what we do for our own children.
My hypothesis was that these parents would, in fact, go for maths and coding for their kids and downplay soft skills.

The pursuit of a knowledge-rich curriculum

Well, I was completely and utterly wrong. In fact, the parents surveyed showed exactly the same concerns with the current education system and its knowledge focus as their representative bodies.
When asked about their own education, and what they wished they'd learned more of at school, the most popular answer was "soft skills". Coding was second, but "finance skills" - often requested as part of the curriculum – was third.
And when asked "do you think school is preparing your child for their future career in terms of the subjects they're taught?", just 52 per cent said yes. When asked if school was preparing their child in terms of skills, the positive answer was just 38 per cent. 
So, basically, the majority of parents working in the tech sector don't think schools are doing the right thing, and would like a rebalancing towards "skills". One of the people we interviewed, the CTO of Ocado, gave this reasonably representative quote:
"Not only are we completely obsessed with trying to push knowledge into children’s heads, but then rather than find creative ways to assess their ability to harness this information, we instead insist on testing their ability to regurgitate meaningless mark schemes."
Now that doesn’t mean they are eschewing science degrees. But it does mean in the war of persuasion, knowledge proponents (including me) have fundamentally lost in a sector of growing importance.

I've been dwelling on why this might be. I am unwilling to junk decades of high-quality cognitive science on the importance of knowledge. At the same time, I am a very big believer in listening to parents on their children’s education. It’s extremely unlikely that this many parents are wrong – if they think their children’s experience is inadequate then it probably is.
My theory is that the insight that has driven chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s shift in Ofsted’s focus is right. It is wholly possible to deliver a knowledge-based curriculum (particularly if you believe in it) in a way that is interesting and absorbing and forces children to think. But it is also wholly possible to deliver it in a way that is miserable, grinding and focuses on test scores and data and a reductive education above anything else.
The big mistake we made when I was in government was, I think, assuming that the experience of some of the true believer schools – the sorts of schools who tell you on Twitter that their children don’t even notice when it’s Sats Week – was going to cascade rapidly through the system. Instead, my impression, talking to quite a lot of teachers, is that what has happened is that government pressures have led to a lot of understandably panicked heads, who have pushed so much pressure down into classrooms that the pupils’ experience genuinely is a truncated one. 
The Government is right, I think, that this isn't a necessary response – and, indeed, we see some great schools who manage to deliver a brilliant rounded education. But it doesn’t make much difference, for the schools that aren't managing to deliver, whether it is because of bad government policy environment or poor implementation capacity or change fatigue. It’s still rubbish for the kids involved.
I do have some optimism. In some recent focus groups that we did with teachers, there were quite impressive green shoots because of Ofsted’s shift in focus – for example, meetings with leaders that had shifted from a discussion on data to a discussion on what is taught. But this survey has told me we still have a very long way to go.

Rachel Wolf is a founding partner at Public First, and former education adviser at No 10

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