by Tom Ravenscroft, Founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise

I will always remember the headline from an early term as a teacher: ‘schools are churning out the unemployable’.

It would have been just another one of those headlines – another jibe at the hard-working, committed teachers around me. We would have rolled our eyes at it in the staffroom, muttered about how the journalist could never understand the day-to-day realities of an inner-city comprehensive and then moved on. Except something in it resonated with me.

As a newly qualified teacher and unhelpfully fresh-faced with it, I was not short of classroom challenges – behaviour, assessment for learning, turning the business studies curriculum into something engaging and accessible. But throughout it all there was a growing sense of dissonance.

This dissonance was the gap between my focus on the coursework and predicted grades of my students, and the skills and attributes that I knew those 15- and 16-year-olds would need in the wider world.

The gap

I first became conscious of the gap back in 2008. In the midst of the financial crisis, the wider world was looking an increasingly unwelcoming and inhospitable place for the young people in my classroom. Youth unemployment would top one million before the crisis receded again.

The underlying problem was long-lasting. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) – representing British business – had long argued that there was a need for young people to build employability skills like teamwork, communication and self-management. In 2016, the CBI’s annual survey of employers highlighted that 50% were concerned about school leavers’ communication skills and problem-solving skills, and 48% were underwhelmed by their ability to self-manage.

We can debate the extent to which preparation for employment is the principle goal of schools – but it surely must be part of preparing students for their futures.

However, what makes the gap much more compelling is that under the guise of ‘study skills’ a very similar set of skills are called for by universities and colleges. For example, the University of Cambridge highlights the ‘intellectual skills’ of analysis and problem-solving, communication skills, interpersonal skills and organisational skills.

Organisations that support entrepreneurs also call for a similar set of skills, like the ability to persuade, leadership, vision, forward-planning and risk management.

When we break down the silos that these groups of skills have been traditionally placed into, we find that much of the difference is artificial. There is a set of skills which are universally important for education, enterprise and employment. We can call them the Essential Skills.

The Essential Skills

My experience in the classroom led me to set up a not-for-profit organisation called Enabling Enterprise to find effective, rigorous ways to build those skills. In the past year alone, we’ve worked with over 85,000 students across nearly 300 schools in partnership with over 130 employers.

We work on eight essential skills, which we sometimes refer to as enterprise skills:

  • Listening and Presenting as the two parts of effective communication.
  • Teamwork and Leadership as the two sides of interpersonal skills.
  • Creativity and Problem Solving to help create and manage new ideas.
  • Aiming High and Staying Positive as the two dimensions of setting clear goals and plans, and then having the strategies to stick at achieving them.
  • These skills are distinctly different from knowledge and character which make up the other two parts of the trio of what a great education should develop.

Instead, we have focused in our work on breaking down each of these skills into their teachable chunks. For example, for our youngest students of 4- or 5-years-old, we might be focused on helping them take it in turns. Whereas we want our 14- and 15-year-olds to be able to spot when they might be getting into an argument and take steps to avoid it. Under problem-solving we want our oldest students to understand inductive and deductive logic, decision trees and scoring and weighting outcomes to reach decisions.

How to build them

Our work has shown clearly that it is possible for almost every child and young person to secure the competence in these essential skills. These then underpin effective learning in the classroom, and success in the rest of their lives. It doesn’t require tearing up the curriculum, undermining knowledge acquisition or seeing the entirety of schooling through the lens of these skills.

Instead, the schools who are really excelling at building these skills alongside knowledge and character are consistently following six principles:

  • They are using a simple and consistent set of language, and are disciplined about retaining a focus on these teachable skills, rather than confusing them with broader attributes like confidence or resilience.
  • They are starting young, with children as young as 3-years-old and continuing to build these skills until their young people leave school at 18.
  • They are focusing on measuring where students are and the progress they are making, often using the free skills assessment tools at skillsbuilder.org
  • They are making dedicated time available to just focus on the skill. This doesn’t have to be a lot of time but it has to be just about building the skills, often through direct instruction and deliberate practice.
  • They reinforce those skills consistently – by referring to them at appropriate points in other teaching, and ensuring students join up the times when they practice the skill.
  • They bring the skills to life, through taking the students out into the real world with trips to employers, and bringing the real world into the classroom through projects. This helps to secure their transferability.

Reasons for optimism

Through the work of Enabling Enterprise and our growing group of partners, we have seen that these skills can be a core enabler of our children and young people. By making them a central part of learning, alongside knowledge and character, we fill a missing piece in what our students need – and in turn set them up to learn better in school, and to succeed in university, employment or entrepreneurship thereafter. Which is why I became a teacher in the first place.

This article originally appeared on academymag.co.uk

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