Skills needed in a fast changing world

‘Businesses feel very strongly that the education system must better prepare young people for life outside the school gates, or risk wasting their talents,’ said John Cridland, CBI Director-General. He was speaking in July 2014 and since then the idea of schools as specialist institutions producing children who are ‘work ready’ has gained currency.

The CBI and Pearson conducted a survey of 291 companies employing nearly 1.5 million people.  Their report Gateway to Growth showed over half (61%) were concerned about the resilience and self-management of school leavers and a third (33%) with their attitude to work.

In contrast, nearly all firms (96%) were satisfied with young people’s IT abilities when they enter the workplace. In this context ‘satisfied’ is high praise indeed and it is so encouraging to find that teachers are getting something right!

So what qualities do school leavers need in the twenty first century? The World Economic Forum has a list which includes leadership; showing initiative – being proactive and self-motivated; persistence – grit, resilience and coping with failure; adaptability; social and cultural awareness – community spirit, honesty, integrity, tolerance and respect.

At a recent exhibition I talked to Donna Irving (Founder and Director) of Stepping Into Business, a company that helps to develop a taste for enterprise in primary and secondary pupils.  ‘The jobs our children will be doing in the future don’t even exist now,’ said Donna. ‘They are likely to have multiple and diverse careers in their lifetime and many will work for themselves.’  She felt that schools should not be churning out production lines with little Richard Bransons or mini Alan Sugars, which was a great relief to me, but she was adamant that schools should foster an enterprising and can-do attitude to life. ‘We should be preparing our children to be creative and adaptive problem solvers.’

She broke down 21st century skills for school leavers into these categories:

  • They need to know things. The essentials are literacy, numeracy, financial literacy, ICT, science, cultural and civic awareness
  • They need to be able to do things. This is all the Cs: Creativity (innovation), Critical Thinking (problem solving) Communication and Collaboration (teamwork)
  • They need to have the right attitude. They need to be of strong character with a moral code, personality and the ability to adapt to a changing environment

This brings us to the question of delivery. Some schools have special days off timetable when they focus on core areas such as problem-solving or team work. Others have restructured their curriculum with 21st century skills at the centre of the process, where different curriculum subjects fit into overarching themes. This is easier to implement in primary than in a secondary school.

Finally there is the issue of assessment. If these attributes are important to industry why don’t we have benchmarks and ways of measuring them? At present the Duke of Edinburgh award seems to be one of the few ways of accrediting these skills.

What is clear is that we need to start having proper informed debates in schools, not just pronouncements from on high. If teachers and business leaders can come together to set a new agenda for education we may yet see change. Instead of young people being judged on SATs results or the number of A-C passes at GCSE, we may start to appreciate and value talents such as resourcefulness and creative problem solving – qualities that are in very short supply in many sections of society.