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Soft skills shouldn't be a middle-class preserve

WHO can forget Spud Murphy's interview in Trainspotting? When his interviewer notes with interest that he attended George Heriot's, Spud admits it's a lie. "Ah mean, would you have said, likesay, ah see you attended Craigroyston?"

Ten years on from the publication of Trainspotting, Craigroyston would have been a feather in Spud's cap on any application for a university course.

Universities are paying heed to the number of students from state schools, or from poorer areas. They seem to accept, too, a correlation between good soft skills and a middle-class background and private education. Admissions tutors are being urged not to be swayed by good interview techniques and the demonstration of good interpersonal skills, and, as it were, to carve the angel out of the marble.

Soft skills seem to go in and out of fashion. When I first joined FE, they were part of the curriculum of every full-time course. Soft skills were labelled personal and social development and covered by units such as personal effectiveness, job-seeking skills, working with others or problem-solving.

These units are still taught, but fewer courses seem to offer them, not because they are no longer required, but because economics demand concentration on the hard skills offered in particular vocational areas.

It is ironic that despite overwhelming pressure from employers and the emphasis on qualities such as emotional intelligence in management, soft skills are suddenly getting a bad press, as if an applicant with excellent soft skills is as shady as a Find the Lady card sharp on a street corner.

The satirists in newspapers are having a field day offering quick suggestions on how to rub off the "polish" that can come free with a middle-class background, and a fee-paying school. How about "Spud Murphy Master Class: How to be poorer at interviews. Enrol now, places limited"?

No one doubts the need to redress the balance in admissions to higher education, difficult though that might be. But surely not at the expense of reducing the importance of soft skills? FE has always understood their importance. Where soft skills are overtly included in a course, there can be ample time to explore areas of strengths and weaknesses, to set goals and targets, and help students evaluate their progress. When they are not included, it can be more difficult, but the challenge still has to be met.

I read with not a little envy of the primary teacher who agreed with her class in advance of any activity what kind of voice they would be using to communicate - small, medium or large. I sometimes tease my Thursday class by calling sternly, "Children, children! Quiet please", when they get too obstreperous. But then the oldest is 92, and they are all old enough to appreciate the joke.

Improving any lack in soft skills has to be done with tact. It's presumptuous, surely, to judge that they need help polishing up soft skills when they have come to us for vocational training. The truth is, however, that many of them do. And that can be help on any level, from the basics of how to ask a question, to dealing with conflict in a group task.

One of the pleasures of taking a group of students through a full-time year at NQ level is seeing how they mature and grow into their roles as their soft skills develop: there are huge gains in study skills, confidence, independent thinking, and emotional intelligence.

I hope the Spud Murphy Master Class doesn't attract too many recruits, and that soft skills continue to be a vital part of vocational education.

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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