Currently schools in the UK have a narrow focus on a set of core academic skills, and a culture of intensive testing. This focus has too often squeezed out another set of ‘softer,’ or non-cognitive, skills which as we know are essential for making the most of cognitive abilities, as well as being increasingly important in their own right for employment, particularly in the service sectors – sectors that young people are particularly drawn to for employment.
What role can youth work play in establishing soft skills?
The purpose of youth work is to enable young people to develop holistically, working with them to facilitate their personal, social and educational development, to support their voice, influence and place in society and to reach their full potential.
Youth work has a key role to play in helping young people develop soft skills such as social and emotional learning. Two years ago NYA established a commission into youth work in education. We heard many great examples of schools reporting raised self-esteem, better social skills and well-rounded young people as a result of youth work activity in schools. We think youth workers have the professional qualities to spearhead a programme of soft skills training focused on young people in schools.
What are the barriers?
Ofsted and DfE must recognise the added value that soft skills contribute to the economy and prioritise this in education policy. Organisations in the charity sector are particularly experienced at supporting these skills in young people (not just the most disengaged) and this role needs to be recognised alongside the school curriculum. This is too important to be left to teachers who do not have the time to prioritise these abilities in their pupils.
National issue: We need to recognise that the absence of non-cognitive skills is a national issue and push government to see this as an educational challenge which schools don’t have to resolve themselves. Schools can buy in expertise and support or employers can do this directly.
Greater awareness: We need to understand that soft skills are often as important as technical qualifications – the challenge is to be sufficiently self-aware as to realise what needs to change and often this can’t happen without support.
Government priority: Government need to focus on soft skills, and developing young people’s abilities around them, by making them a statutory part of the PSHE curriculum or after school activity that is secured by outside experts. As these skills help enhance young people’s academic abilities, this move will encourage greater academic success too.
Youth services: Local authorities need to continue to invest in youth services and local youth organisations These have been cut drastically in recent years but often make a huge difference to the lives of the most disengaged. Open access youth services have been the worst affected and where possible should be reinstated.
Schools: Schools have a particularly important role to play. They must acknowledge the importance of soft skills for school leavers entering the job market, and devote PSHE curriculum time to developing these abilities, employing experienced youth workers to work with young people throughout their school career.
For many years NYA has designed and delivered programmes through trained youth workers that make a difference to the confidence and self-esteem of young people and build their soft skills through activities and projects. Business is clear about the crucial role soft skills play; it’s time we refocused education, schools and training to support their development.