A decade ago I was a new teacher in a challenging secondary school in Hackney, in East London. I think we all have new teacher horror stories, and I accumulated my fair share too.
But what struck me far more than those individual incidents was the sense that there was a real gap between the grade targets that overshadowed everything, and what my 14- and 15-year-old students actually needed. We hear often enough that employers have concerns about the skills of the school and college leavers they recruit.
As teachers though, we see the immediate struggles in the classroom if students haven’t built the basic skills to work with others, or to organise themselves, or to persist through challenges.
How to fill the gap
I certainly wasn’t alone in recognising the gap. The problem was that as a teacher with a full roster of classes, a packed curriculum and plenty of other responsibilities it was hard to make sense of how to fill this gap.
Many different ideas and mooted solutions swirled around: Was the gap really about social and emotional competencies or enterprise or employability or life skills? Should I be building confidence, collaboration, financial literacy or honesty?
In the end, I set up Enabling Enterprise as a not-for-profit to focus on how we could fill this missing piece in education: by building the essential skills that students need to thrive in school and beyond it.
Distilling it all down
There is so much out there, and so many different notions of what we should be developing in our students, that we had to start by taking all of the different ‘desirables’ out there and working out what they really were. What we found is that the space is incredibly confused – but the biggest problem is that we are blending knowledge, character and skills together.
I think a great education builds all three – but it does so in quite different ways. For knowledge we can teach directly, and test recall and application. Character is all about choices – it is more often modelled and reinforced than directly taught. Skills are the ability to do something.
So we put to one side knowledge like how to write a CV, or financial literacy. We also set aside character traits like confidence or resilience. Instead, we focused on the teachable skills. Once we focused we found a stable set of eight skills that work consistently – whether for education, employment or enterprise. They are teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, creativity, aiming high, staying positive, listening and presenting.
Digging into each skill
What’s more exciting, is that we can crack open each of these skills in turn to realise that they are built up of teachable chunks. For example, teamwork includes the ability to take it in turns, to make suggestions, to encourage others, to resolve conflicts and to measure team effectiveness. By working through these in steps we can help our students to master each component in time.
Through Enabling Enterprise, in the last year alone we’ve worked with over 3,500 teachers and their 87,000 students. The approach has been used with children across the country from the age of 3 year-olds through to 18 year-olds.
We’ve now brought together everything we’ve learnt in taking this approach and from the brilliant schools and teachers we’ve work with, both in a new book, and a supporting website of resources for teachers at www.TheEssentialSkills.org
Super-charging our efforts
I know from my own experience, and the thousands of inspiring teachers who we’ve had the privilege to work with that we all want to set up our children and young people for the rest of their lives – not just to hit a grade or level target.
I hope that a simpler, more consistent focus on a simple set of eight skills, alongside the tools and resources we’ve brought together can help us all to make that a reality.
Tom Ravenscroft is Founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise, an award-winning social enterprise working with schools across the country to build the essential skills of 3- to 18-year-olds. His first book, entitled ‘The Missing Piece: The Essential Skills that Education Forgot’ is published by John Catt Educational Publishing in October.
You can find out more about the tools and resources mentioned in the blog at www.TheEssentialSkills.org