Taking a hard line on soft skills

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
A certain ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude is evident among leading figures in FE when it comes to work-readiness

Given the extent to which the great and the good of the FE sector bang on about the importance of soft skills to ensure young people are prepared for employment, it can prove highly embarrassing – not to mention hugely entertaining – when they fail to display them.

The classic example was back in 2013 when then skills minister Matthew Hancock famously overslept and arrived late for a television interview about traineeships, the flagship initiative designed to provide young people with the basic skills needed for the world of work. As the red-faced minister admitted: “It proves the point. You’ve got to be on time for work or there are consequences.”

With delicious irony, a similar faux pas occurred last week during a session of the Technical and Further Education Bill Committee.

Leading figures from the sector were being grilled about the implications of the government’s proposed legislation. The room fell silent as Alison Fuller from the UCL Institute of Education began to speak about the importance of governance and efficiency in colleges.

But then the strains of what sounded suspiciously like the theme from 1960s TV show Z Cars began to echo around the room. Participants’ heads twisted and turned as those around the table patted their pockets to determine who was responsible for this abominable interruption to the democratic process. Surely, for such an eminent group, remembering to put one’s phone on silent before a crucial meeting is a given?

“I am hearing strange noises,” proclaimed chair Adrian Bailey. “Can whoever is making them please deal with them?” The assembled throng looked around, waiting for the guilty party to admit responsibility. It was none other than FE commissioner Richard Atkins who was forced to ’fess up. “It was mine, apologies,” he told the committee as he stashed away the offending item.

‘Cheap labour’

Meanwhile, Ofsted’s report on getting ready for work, published last week, offers a striking reminder of one of the cardinal rules of education: if you want to get to the crux of a matter, ask a student.

Inspectors visited 40 schools to find out how young people were being prepared for employment. Predictably, one issue that cropped up was apprenticeships, and the reasons stopping people pursuing them. For some, pay was an issue, with one describing them as nothing more than “cheap labour”.

“Often, disadvantaged pupils believed they would lose their family benefits from being on an apprenticeship,” the report says. “For many pupils who live in rural areas, apprenticeships do not pay enough to cover transport.”

When told the pay rate for apprenticeships, one student responded: “My part-time job pays me double for washing dishes.” Another said: “I earn £5 an hour stacking shelves in a newsagents. They are having a laugh.”

The report is a timely prompt that there is still much work to be done to sell the apprenticeship brand.

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