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Time to take a hard look at the importance of soft skills

Thank goodness we're coming clean about the importance of soft skills in colleges. They have always been important, but teaching them was frequently problematic. New initiatives will gladden the hearts of lecturers, because parameters will now be sharper and achievement better rewarded.

In college, soft skills have usually been connected with communication, covering everything from simple rules to follow at an interview ("Don't sit down until you are asked") to employing transactional analysis to reach a win-win situation ("I'm okay and you're okay").

Some students love these elements. Some struggle. For those who thought they came to learn how to earn a living fixing cars or making souffles, the discovery that they have to learn techniques of presentation or stand in front of a class and deliver a talk is terrifying.

Tell them it will make them employable. Tell them you share their pain, and can remember how it felt to have a crit during your TQFE (Teacher Qualification in Further Education). Even when you've talked amusingly about body language and employed the usual double entendre about leakage to give them a laugh, they look at you, wide-eyed and silent, turning you into Cruella de Vil as you stand in front of a brood of defenceless puppies with dewy eyes. It takes time, effort and imagination to build confidence.

If you're teaching soft skills to external clients, the main problem can be their vague remit of "we want some communication skills". You have to ascertain what skills are needed in the business - whether that's negotiating skills, assertiveness training or how to manage interpersonal relations. Otherwise, you could end up at a plush venue with a cracking day's worth of stuff on dealing with difficult people - only to discover that Alice, who is your first customer to arrive for the coffee-and- shortbread welcome, thinks otherwise. "I thought we were here for something on computers," she says worryingly. "I think that's what we were told."

Luckily, you discover that Alice is in the wrong place at the wrong time and, after she's finished her coffee and shortbread, you can safely usher her away and get on with the training you've worked on for weeks.

The author William Fiennes spoke recently in Dundee about his experience of teaching creative writing to disenfranchised students in an inner-city London school. He was aware that it seemed an old, old story but Fiennes was obviously moved at witnessing the difference success and a sense of worth made in the young folk he taught. Anyone who's worked in FE is liable to smile weakly and say: "Yeah . whatever, William."

Fiennes's account, like most redemption narratives such as Dead Poets' Society or Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, centred on the powers of poetry or creative writing to unlock minds and hearts but - and shout it loudly - that kind of magic happens whether your learner discovers she can write a sonnet, get a car engine to hum sweetly or produce a mile-high souffle.

The college experience itself allows most learners to grow, to blossom. But, with a renewed recognition of the importance of soft skills, there'll be a happy ending writ large for all our learners.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in creative media.

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