Education is full of buzzwords, jargon and initiatives. It is a profession like no other with the endless desire for the next, new, shiny thing that will completely change everyone’s lives for the better. Currently, the newest "thing" in education seems to be the rising importance of "soft skills" – a point emphasised by Damian Hinds, the new education secretary, who recently stated that exams and qualifications were “not the whole picture when it comes to what you learn and achieve”. Worrying words indeed.
Soft skills, for those not in the know, are defined as personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. They include such skills as: communication, resilience, problem-solving, teamwork, persistence and self-confidence. These skills will be familiar to anyone who can remember the dreaded "personal learning and thinking skills" framework. This was an initiative that led to teachers everywhere frantically trying to reference skills in lesson plans and observations a few years ago.
But these skills all sound like positive attributes that every teacher and future employer would want students to have, so what’s the problem? Well firstly, my issue isn't with the notion of "soft skills" per se; it's more with the increasing importance that is being placed upon them in schools, particularly those in deprived socioeconomic areas, where students need to be focused on, first and foremost, ensuring they get the best qualifications possible.
Staff up and down the country will be sat in whole-school CPD sessions in which they are told that they must teach soft skills, as they are what our students need to be successful citizens in the 21st century. I assume in these same sessions staff will be fed the endless lie that 65 per cent, or whatever percentage it is this week, of today’s Year 7 students will end up in jobs that haven’t been invented yet.
Furthermore, students up and down the country will be sitting in workshops or in extended form-time sessions with business consultants who will "teach" them – badly – how to be "resilient" and how to be a "team-player" through awful Dragons' Den-style projects, whilst they miss valuable lesson time, misbehave and form a completely incorrect impression of what school is all about.
Are we telling pupils that exam results don't matter?
We seem, as a nation, to be telling students more and more that exam results don’t matter, when the reality is they do. We tell students that cognitive skills aren’t really important, that it is all about non-cognitive soft skills. We tell them it isn’t all about grades, it is all about having good social skills, when the reality is they need cognitive skills to achieve a set of good grades in their exams and to develop these non-cognitive skills in the first place.
Is our education system so broken now that we don’t believe the poorest students can achieve anymore? Or is society itself so entrenched in an unequal class system that we have to shift the focus from grades to basic social skills?
The vagueness of soft skills – they are impossible to meaningfully assess, as Greg Ashman points out here – suits an agenda whereby we seem to have given up on the idea of the poorest students achieving the best outcomes. Grades allow social mobility, as they ensure that society remains meritocratic and that there is room for social movement, but as Doug Lemov states, when you “eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility”. A system that forces soft skills as a priority on our poorest students instead of grades is a system that ensures the rich stay at the top and the poor at the bottom. Soft skills are a convincing and enticing argument put forward by those already in power, who want to maintain this rigid hierarchy.
Furthermore and most frustratingly, these skills are a by-product of a regular school curriculum. The best way for a student to improve their communications skills is by studying the works of Shakespeare, by reading a sonnet from Romeo and Juliet or memorising a dramatic monologue from Julius Caesar. If you want to build resilience in a learner, what better way than learning the complexities and nuances of a foreign language? Or solving difficult algebraic equations? Or understanding how a cell is structured? If you want students to develop teamwork, where better to learn this than PE?
Soft skills on their own cannot be taught. They require a body of knowledge for them to be understood. So why are we asking teachers and students to do something that is impossible? Are the people promoting soft skills doing it to further their own ends, or are they simply misguided? Whichever way you see it, the real losers in all of this are students, because if you want a student to be self-confident, then make sure that you get them the best set of qualifications possible at the end of Year 11 and Year 13, so they have limitless life opportunities. It is, after all, very difficult to be self-confident when you leave school illiterate and innumerate, as some students in this country shamefully still do.
Finally, the pushing of soft skills bothers me because, I ask, what are schools now? Factories for workers of the mythical 21st century? I want students to bask in the joy of reading Dickens and Orwell, to find the causes of the Second World War as fascinating as I once did and to appreciate the endless intricacies of biology, chemistry and physics. They can study all of these things and if they work hard they will achieve grades that will allow them to have a better future and become better members of society and hopefully one day help make the world a better place to live. That’s what schools should be, that’s how learning time should be spent, not on vague team-building exercises where students try and build the tallest tower possible out of toilet rolls, all in the name of "teamwork", “resilience" and "collaboration". Leave that to the mythical 21st-century bosses and let teachers do what they do best – teach.