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.
- 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.
- Schools should focus on ensuring a wider range of their pupils develop a broad array of non-academic skills, through both classroom strategies and extra-curricular enrichment activities such as debating, cultural visits and volunteering. There should be a particular focus on increasing take-up by those from a disadvantaged background.
- The Government should introduce a means-tested voucher system, or encourage schools to do so, as part of the pupil premium. Through this, lower income families could access additional support and enrichment, including extra-curricular activities and one-to-one tuition.
- Schools should take a ‘whole-school’ approach to engendering life skills in young people. Life skills education should be embedded in the day to day curriculum, through extra-curricular activities, and through dedicated programmes. Social and Emotional Learning programmes and the Personal Social Health and Economic Education curriculum can help to develop skills such as confidence, resilience and ability to work with others. These values should be embedded in the school ethos, assemblies, lessons, school clubs and societies, and in staff-student and staff-parent relationships. It is this consistency of message and environment that is crucial for embedding life skills. A dedicated school lead would help to facilitate this approach.
- Government and Ofsted should work with the sector to provide a greater level of resources, information and tools to support teachers who wish to develop the essential life skills of their pupils. Greater co-ordination between government and organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) would help highlight these resources to teachers. Evidence should be at the heart of life skills education and resources provided by the EEF and Early Intervention Foundation should be used to inform the most effective strategies for schools and teachers. The EEF has already funded 12 trials in this area, and is planning a number more over the next three years.
- Programmes for developing life skills require robust evaluation, so that schools have better guidance on the most effective approaches. A number of approaches currently being trialled appear promising: including training teachers to improve mindsets and resilience in their students, structured after-school clubs, social action activities, and social and emotional learning programmes.
- The development of essential life skills by schools should be incentivised and rewarded. While significant challenges remain to the reliable measurement of outcomes, the extent to which schools are actively promoting life skills development through the curriculum, extra-curricular activities and dedicated programmes – particularly for those from more disadvantaged groups – should be included in Ofsted inspection criteria.
- With the Department for Education encouraging greater cooperation between employers and schools, employers should engage with schools and young people to develop their understanding of the wider non-academic skills that are most needed in different workplaces. Businesses could also expand their work experience and apprenticeship programmes to ensure that young people entering the job market are better prepared for the workplace. Young people should also have access to high quality careers guidance that promotes the development of these skills.