Schools’ main focus is on developing children’s core academic knowledge and skills in literacy, numeracy, and range of curriculum subjects. But there are other skills that are increasingly seen as important to children’s wider development: ‘essential life skills’ such as confidence, social skills, self-control, motivation, and resilience. These are the attitudes, skills and behaviours that are thought to underpin success in school and work, and include the ability to respond to setbacks, work well with others, build relationships, communicate effectively, manage emotions, and cope with difficult situations. Such skills are often referred to as ‘social and emotional skills’, ‘soft skills’, ‘non-cognitive skills’ or ‘character’. They are usually seen as distinct from academic knowledge and skills, however, they are increasingly thought to play an important part in learning, as well as contributing to children’s wider development, well-being and readiness for life beyond school. This report, authored by Carl Cullinane and Rebecca Montacute, highlights the recognition among teachers, employers and young people on how important life skills are to the success of young people, exploring current provision for life skills development in state schools and the level of demand for improvement.
Despite the growing interest in and enthusiasm for developing children’s life skills, the central focus of policy and accountability remains on academic attainment. Relatively little is known about what schools, teachers, and pupils think about life skills: their perception of how important they are; how this varies at different phases of education; what activities they currently provide; and what the barriers are to doing more. So too for employers: whilst we know from CBI surveys that employers want young people to arrive with positive attitudes towards work, and good character, a more detailed understanding of the skills they want (and feel are lacking) would help to inform the extent to which schools and policy are supporting young people for success in adult life.
- Essential life skills such as confidence, motivation, resilience and communication are associated with better academic outcomes and better prospects in the workplace, and there is an increasing emphasis on their value, given labour market trends towards automation. While ‘character’ has traditionally been a focus of British private school education, provision in the state sector has been patchy, and it is only recently that a concerted move has been made towards prioritising life skills education for all children.
- There is wide recognition of the importance of such life skills, with 88% of young people, 94% of employers and 97% of teachers saying that they are as or more important than academic qualifications. In fact, more than half of teachers (53%) believe that life skills are more important than academic qualifications to young people’s success and 72% believe their school should increase their focus on teaching life skills.
- Three quarters of young people believe that better life skills would help them get a job in the future, and 88% say that they are as or more important than getting good grades. However, only 1 in 5 pupils say that the school curriculum helps them ‘a lot’ with the development of life skills.
- Extra-curricular activities can contribute to the development of these skills, but there are substantial gaps between the level of provision of clubs and activities reported by teachers, and actual take-up by pupils. 78% of teachers report the availability of volunteering programmes to build life skills, but only 8% of pupils say they take part. 45% of teachers said their school provided debating, yet just 2% of young people reported participating. Almost two in five young people (37%) don’t take part in any clubs or activities.
- There are also substantial socio-economic gaps in access to extra-curricular activities, with pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds less likely to take up activities than their better off peers (46% compared to 66%), with just half of those receiving free school meals (FSM) taking part. There are also substantial gaps in provision, with schools with higher numbers of FSM pupils less likely to offer certain activities. Schools with the lowest proportion of FSM pupils are twice as likely to offer debating clubs as schools with the highest (70% compared to 35%).
- 94% of employers say that life skills are at least as important as academic results for the success of young people, with nearly one third saying even more so, however 68% say 18 year old school leavers they are looking to recruit don’t have the required skills for the workplace. Employers’ confidence in university graduates is higher, yet little over half (52%) believe they have the skills required.
- Employers believe that young people who have completed apprenticeships are best prepared with the life skills needed in the workplace, with two thirds (64%) agreeing that apprentices have the right skills, significantly higher than university graduates. Almost two thirds of employers (62%) also feel that more apprenticeships are one of the best ways of filling the skills gap in the workplace.
- Unequal access to opportunities for developing life skills plays a role in the over-representation of those with independent school backgrounds of the UK’s top professions. Giving young people from all backgrounds a greater opportunity to develop those skills can therefore be an engine for opportunity and social mobility.