There is a big mismatch between pupil take-up of extra-curricular activities such as debating and volunteering in secondary schools – activities that could help develop the life skills regarded as essential by employers – and what teachers say their school is offering, according to a new report published by the Sutton Trust today.

Across secondary schools in England, 78% of secondary school teachers surveyed by the National Foundation for Education Research say their school offers volunteering programmes to build their pupils’ life skills, but just eight per cent of pupils aged 11-16 in England and Wales surveyed by Ipsos MORI say they take part in these sorts of extra-curricular activities.

Similarly, 45% of secondary teachers said their school provided debating, yet just two per cent of pupils report taking part. Almost two in five secondary pupils (37%) don’t take part in extra-curricular activities run by their school.

The new polling also finds there are big 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%).

Life Lessons surveys attitudes and provision of essential life skills through separate polling of teachers, employers and young people. It finds wide recognition of the importance of life skills, with 88% of young people, 94% of employers and 97% of teachers saying that these are as or more important than academic qualifications. In fact, more than half of teachers (53%) surveyed by the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) believe that life skills are more important than academic skills to young people’s success. 72% believe their school should increase their focus on teaching life skills.

Of the young people polled by Ipsos MORI, three-quarters believe that better life skills would help them get a job in the future (73%), and 88% say that these are as or more important than getting good grades. However, only one in five (20%) say that their school curriculum helps them to develop their life skills ‘a lot’.

This is echoed by employers surveyed by YouGov. Almost one-third (30%) say that life skills are more important than academic results for the success of young people, yet 68% say those who leave school after A Levels/Further Education don’t have the required skills for the workplace. Their confidence in university graduates is higher, yet little over half (52%) believe they have the skills required.

Employers felt that young people who have completed apprenticeships are best prepared, with two-thirds (64%) agreeing that apprentices have the life skills they need in the workplace. A similar proportion believe that more apprenticeships are one of the best ways of filling the life skills gap in the workplace.

So that all pupils have the opportunity to develop their life skills, the Sutton Trust would like to see schools providing a broad array of life skills within regular lessons and through extra-curricular activities like debating and volunteering. Focus should be on increasing participation from those less well-off.

The Trust is recommending that the Government introduces a means-tested voucher – or encourages schools to do so – funded through the pupil premium, through which lower-income families could access additional support and enrichment. The Trust also wants to see incentives and rewards for schools that actively develop their pupils’ essential life skills.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“A staggering 90% of employers, teachers and young people say that essential life skills are as or more important than academic qualifications. By essential life skills we mean confidence, articulacy, social skills and team work.

“These skills are crucial and everyone should have the opportunity to develop them.  Independent schools by and large do an excellent job.  It is vital that state schools embed the development of these skills in their ethos, curriculum and extracurricular activities. This is so that they are as natural a part of school life as English and Maths.”


  1. The full report will be available at 0001 on Thursday 12th October from here:
  2. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  3. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is funding a number of different randomised controlled trials to find out how best to develop character attributes like resilience, self-control and confidence. More on their work in this area can be found here.
  4. In order to explore perceptions about the importance, provision and demand for life skills, the Sutton Trust, along with the EEF, commissioned three surveys from key populations: state school teachers, employers and young people in schools themselves.
  5. Young people were surveyed through the Ipsos MORI Young People Omnibus, a representative survey of 11-16 year olds attending mainstream state schools in England and Wales. Interviews of 2,612 young people were carried out through a self-completion questionnaire across over 100 schools between February and May 2017. Data are weighted by sex, age and region to match the population of pupils aged 11-16 in England and Wales.
  6. Ipsos MORI determines the affluence of young people’s backgrounds through a series of four questions in the questionnaire (frequency of family holidays, having one’s own bedroom in the family home, number of computers in household, whether the family owns a vehicle). Of the total number of 11-16 year olds interviewed, 1,449 were determined to come from ‘high’ affluence backgrounds and 220 from ‘low’ affluence backgrounds.
  7. Employers were surveyed via the YouGov Business Omnibus, a poll of senior business decision makers (excluding sole traders) in Great Britain. 1,133 employers were surveyed between 30th May – 5th June 2017 through an online questionnaire. Data are weighted and are nationally representative of business size.
  8. Teachers were surveyed through the National Foundation for Educational Research’s Teacher Voice survey, a three-times yearly poll conducted online with teachers from the maintained sector in England, in both primary and secondary schools. 1,361 practising teachers, from headteachers to newly qualified class teachers, were surveyed in March 2017. The school sample is nationally representative of key factors, including free school meals eligibility, region, school performance, school type and local authority type.
  9. ‘School leavers’ refer to young people who are at the end of further education (e.g. A level).

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