There have been numerous studies asking employers ‘what they really want’ in terms of workforce skills. These often show that employers express concerns about students’ skills level in certain areas, for instance, communications. But there are two challenges – the number of overlapping studies and the broad definition of these skills. This report takes a summative approach, aiming to come up with a more collective view of the skills gaps. It also takes this to a greater level of detail, looking at specific tasks and functions (for example, in the case of communication this could be about participating in meetings, making presentations, writing emails or drafting reports).
Second, we wanted to understand specifically where young people are being supported to develop these skills. In some cases, this will be in the classroom (e.g. preparing a presentation as a team in a geography class) and in others it will be in ‘extra-curricular’ settings from after school clubs to work experience to scouts.
The study draws upon existing literature assessing the skills and behaviours young people need to find work, and then thrive once there. The objective of this literature search was to create a collective view of the skills employers most commonly felt are needed in the workforce. The findings gathered from the literature formed the main discussion with professionals with first-hand experience of recruitment in large and small enterprises across private, public and third sectors.
The report also sets out the findings from a survey of 626 secondary school teaching staff based in England. The survey, completed by staff at independent, maintained and academy institutions, investigated how the skills and competencies are being developed in different school-based environments. It went on to explore how changes to the curriculum, at both Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, had impacted on the ability of schools to develop the skills needed in the 21st century labour market.
Across 21 studies identified through the review, seven employability skills and five ‘competencies’ were found to be most frequently cited by employers. Subsequently employers from a range of industries offered examples of how these skills and competencies can help young people during recruitment processes and at early stages of employment. Focus group attendees noted that these skills and competencies should be seen as ‘interdependent’, with certain skills and competencies growing and developing as others grow. They also acknowledged that the development of these skills should be supported by ‘meta-cognitive strategies’, in other words exercises to help students to re-contextualise them and apply them to new situations.
Development of skills in schools
From our survey, it appears teachers are evidently and resolutely setting about the task of supporting their students to develop these skills.
- Over 90% of teachers believe that the top five skills and two of the four competencies cited by employers are developed in school. The vast majority state that students have a range of opportunities to acquire and practise these skills through classwork and extra-curricular activities.
- Teachers believe that teamwork, confidence, communication, creativity and problem solving are the top skills and competencies developed through extra-curricular activities.
- Respondents also noted that communication, problem solving, team work, creativity and reflection are being developed through classwork.
- Teachers use lessons outside of the subject areas, such as tutor time, to help students with information about the world of work and to boost their communication skills.
- Other activities during the school day, such as interacting with peers, support the development of communication and teamwork skills.
Teachers gave detailed examples of how school is making students more employable. Despite the work and effort schools are investing in developing and instilling these skills and competencies in young people, certain challenges such as time and resources affect the level of development.
The impact of a narrowing curriculum
The research highlights that current Government policy, such as the narrower curriculum and increased content and exam-focus of GCSEs and A levels, are standing in the way of young people developing the skills necessary for working life.
- 32% of teachers told us that changes to the Key Stage 3 curriculum have been detrimental to developing the skills and attitudes needed for work.
- 56% of respondents to the schools’ survey feel that changes to the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum are limiting students’ chances to acquire creative thinking skills. 45% believe that young people have limited opportunities to develop their career development skills (we group these skills under the umbrella ‘informed’).
- Nearly half (47%) of teachers believe that there are fewer opportunities to develop employability skills and competencies since the introduction of the reformed GCSEs and A levels. Of these a third stated that changes to the syllabus had, for example, necessitated a new focus on rote learning to the detriment of developing the skills and attitudes needed for work.
- 66% of teachers felt that following the introduction of the new GCSEs and A levels there was less opportunity to develop creativity, with 61% stating there was less opportunity to develop teamwork.
55% of respondents believe the reformed GCSEs and A levels are not improving students’ confidence.
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