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Mind your Ps and Qs

The older I get, the more certain I am that Hannibal Lecter had the right idea. I'm not advocating creative serial killing in general, but I do believe that Dr Lecter's stance on poor manners was a lesson for us all. I'm not insane: I only applaud the old chianti-and-fava-beans treatment for adults. It's not fair to judge the young people we teach on skills that they may not have had the opportunity to learn.

Demonstrating respect and empathy through a simple please, thank you or even the occasional apology can make an enormous difference to other people's days. I often find myself quietly seething in a supermarket queue, believing that the cashier hasn't clocked the snake of red-faced shoppers, only to feel my rage evaporate with five simple words: "Sorry to keep you waiting."

Effective communication is just one of the essential qualities we're currently referring to as "soft skills". A few years ago these same characteristics (interpersonal skills, problem-solving, confidence, resilience, initiative) were given an aspirational makeover and fiercely marketed as "entrepreneurialism". In some colleges they are described as "employability skills". And among those wanting to put an academic spin on matters, they are touted as "emotional intelligence".

This collection of traits should be promoted and modelled in every single session. Show respect by being on time, work hard even when it's difficult, be kind, be polite and be aware of how your words and actions make other people feel. This is basic but essential stuff. It's what parents should teach their kids, but we know that not all of them do or are able to, so it's left to us to pick up the slack.

Employers are becoming more vocal about their need for these characteristics in the workforce, and colleges are responding. But as soon as something becomes an employer remit, there is an impetus in colleges to put a framework around it, to evidence its existence. This is where I start to go off the idea.

Many of these skills are elements of personality, so judging their effectiveness would be entirely subjective. In addition, any potential measurement assumes that the assessors possess the model personality to make the call.

I think I'm a polite, empathetic and generally reasonable person. But everyone else thinks they are too. The colleague who habitually yawns in your face as you speak; the one who walks behind you and never once says thank you when you open every single door for them; the one who keeps you waiting at least 20 minutes for every meeting without apologising for their lateness. They all think they are polite, empathetic and reasonable people.

With this in mind, how can it be suggested that, as educators, any of us are equipped to formally measure others on the personality they bring to our classrooms? Encourage, exhibit and teach these increasingly valued constituent parts of a confident, kind and affable person, but please don't consider putting a number against them. That is what I would judge as insanity.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands. @MrsSarahSimons

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