Angus College gets tough with its innovative soft skills course

12th February 2010 at 00:00
Transnational venture gets under way, helping teenagers to show they've got the right attitude

It's the quality most sought after by teachers and employers everywhere - a good attitude.

It encompasses what are described as "soft skills" and includes everything from our posture when we enter a room to the way we make eye contact and show enthusiasm for work.

It's about being articulate and a good listener, showing a positive work ethic and a willingness to learn. If you've got these soft skills, doors may open for you. Without them, life may be more of a struggle.

At Angus College in Arbroath, they've been helping teenagers overcome barriers to achievement with significant success in an award-winning project HMIE has identified as sector-leading, innovative practice.

The college is now taking this trail-blazing work, pioneered on its Skillzone course, a stage further - leading an international project that brings on board educational partners across Europe.

For the next two years, Angus College will be working alongside partners in Greece, Sweden, Romania and the Netherlands as part of a Leonardo da Vinci Transfer of Innovation project. The work is funded by the European Union's lifelong learning partnership and will develop strategies for measuring and assessing soft skills. It's one of a wide range of EU-funded transnational ventures under way here, offering staff and students opportunities for work and study in Europe.

"This is about how we measure attitude, how we measure commitment and other non-tangible elements of people's behaviour," explains Mina Welsh, curriculum manager for business administration and technology, who is leading the work in Angus.

"It is important, because many employers would say they can give the students the skills in IT, they can give them skills in something that is very easily measurable. But soft skills are very difficult to measure."

Angus College has already achieved 90 per cent success in targeting soft skills development with its Skillzone group of 50 15 to 18 year-olds as part of its More Choices, More Chances strategy to help youngsters into employment. This involves students and tutors working together on questions and each giving an assessment of the student's approach.

They then explore the difference between each of their assessments in discussion and develop strategies for improvement. "We try and get early intervention and other support mechanisms in place," says Ms Welsh.

"It's to give them an awareness of the soft skills and tools, to then be able to openly discuss and reflect on their behaviours, to see if they can understand why they are reacting the way they are."

Staff can see the programme is working, she says, because they see a difference in the young people. It's clear the students find their involvement life-changing - their glowing feedback describes their increased confidence, improved team-work and more positive feelings about their future prospects.

The European partners had also identified the importance of these soft skills, but did not measure or assess them.

"We have the innovation, which is how we measure and assess soft skills, using a range of materials to support them and a measuring tool based around a spreadsheet," says Ms Welsh.

"So we started to discuss the possibility of this project getting wider and put in a submission for Transfer of Innovation funds. We now have two years' funding and we've just started. What it means is that we will now give materials to each of our partners in Romania, Holland, Sweden, Greece, as well as ourselves."

The funding will allow the other countries to translate online materials supplied by Angus College and work on further research and development.

Ms Welsh says the work with young people at Angus College is in early stages, but the funding will help develop more new strategies.

European partners like Sweden and the Netherlands have also been doing work in this area. There will be a total of 250 students across Europe involved with 60 staff, and at the end of the two-year project the materials will be accessible to all colleges online.

Iverene Bromfield, the curriculum manager for communication, arts and social sciences, who manages European projects at Angus College, says its 90 per cent success rate working on soft skills with its student group compared favourably with work done in other partner countries.

"The people in the Netherlands - who would seem on the surface to be doing very similar work, but without any soft skills development - are only getting 40 per cent, maybe 50 per cent at best," she says.

"So actually targeting soft skills seems to be the thing that's making the difference between the 40 per cent success rate there and the 90 per cent success rate here. That's why it was such an attractive thing for the partners to look at."

The programme has won an Accessibility Award from the British Computer Society, an Online Pioneer Award from Learning Assistant Ltd (an electronic port-folio system) and a Gold Volunteering Award for the work the students did to support older learners.


"I feel that I have done something with my life in the last six months." James Linton

"I loved this course - I'm a different person because of it." Angel McGowan

"Even my New Deal adviser didn't recognise me at a recent meeting - I've changed so much and gained so much self-respect." Gemma Spence

It helped me work better in a team." Lea Paterson

"It developed my confidence and motivation to look for a job." Melissa McGarvey

"It helped to boost my confidence and to concentrate on my work." Natasha Mathewson

"It made me a better person to work with." Sascha Kelly.

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