Sir Peter Lampl on the importance of essential life skills, as new Sutton Trust research is published on the subject.

With increasing pressure on young people around exams, and regular restructuring of GCSEs and A levels, it is easy to focus on academic results as the primary consideration for a young person’s success in life. But education is, and should be, about a lot more than that.

Adult life requires a range of skills in order for people to flourish, both in the workplace and in their daily lives, from the confidence and motivation to seek challenges and complete tasks, to the interpersonal skills that aid teamwork and other social interactions. These essential life skills – the subject of today’s new Sutton Trust report Life Lessons – are crucial to people achieving their potential, and therefore it is natural that they should also lie at the heart of our education system.

These essential skills have long been cultivated by the best independent schools. Visiting half a dozen state and independent schools recently, I saw some excellent work in state schools. However, I saw too how the extra resources available to independent schools allow them to impart essential life skills through lessons more consistently than in state schools. Discussions that often only take place at A level in the state sector are easier earlier in smaller independent school classes. Also, independent schools offer a broader array of co-curricular activities, such as drama, debating and public speaking.

As our Leading People research has shown, those who have attended independent schools are consistently over-represented in the top professions in this country, from law and banking to medicine and the arts. This is not merely the result of the academic excellence of these schools, but also of the essential life skills they build in their pupils.

In fact, as research by David J Deming from Harvard University has shown, in the US social skills are becoming more important in the workplace all the time. With increasing automation, it is the ability to show flexibility, creativity and teamwork that are increasingly becoming just as valuable, if not more valuable, than academic knowledge and technical skills. At the Sutton Trust’s Pathways to Banking launch earlier this year, our research showed that job candidates’ presentation and ‘work culture fit’ were key priorities for employers as much as qualifications.

This is why it is crucial that the development of these essential life skills should not be reserved for those who can pay. Every young person should have the opportunity to build their confidence, motivation and resilience in ways that will benefit them for life. This week’s Department for Education move towards a focus on these skills is welcome in this regard. But more needs to be done so that every state school embeds the development of life skills in their ethos, curriculum and extra-curricular activities so that they are as natural a part of school life as English and maths.

Young people from less well-off backgrounds in particular don’t have access to the benefits that enrichment activities outside the classroom can bring, such as debating, volunteering and the performing arts. We need to ensure we close these gaps in access, so life skills can be harnessed as a driver of social mobility.

Our new research shows a staggering recognition among teachers, employers and young people on how important life skills are to the success of our young people. Through the Education Endowment Foundation we increasingly have the evidence on which programmes work. We now need to build on this consensus in order to give every young person the chance to flourish.

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