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Broader skills in the UK: Reflections on policy in England and Wales

Over the last fortnight, hundreds of thousands of students across the UK received their much-anticipated A Level and GCSE results. Their grades reflect months and years of learning: from Shakespeare to the laws of thermodynamics.

Yet, there remain many skills and attributes that A Level results don’t directly capture – like self-confidence, the ability to work in teams and the ability to develop creative solutions to real world problems. Alongside a strong foundation of academic knowledge, we know that young people will need a combination of these higher-order thinking and interpersonal skills to thrive in the future world of work. Social and emotional skills – like resilience and self-awareness – are also associated with a range of positive long-term life outcomes.

Internationally, many countries have already integrated these broader skills into their education policies and curricula. Singapore, Australia and the Republic of Korea for instance have undergone curriculum reform to align what students learn with the skills needed for success now and in the future.

Closer to home, these skills are also coming into focus in England and Wales. In England, the Department for Education’s ‘Character and Resilience’ policy puts a spotlight on young people’s wider personal development. Wales has gone a step further, including an ambitious ‘wider skills’ framework in its latest draft curriculum for 2022.

Both governments gave the public an opportunity to share feedback on these policies through open consultations. Outlined below are some of Nesta’s reflections, along with links to our full consultation submissions.

England

Earlier this year, former Education Secretary Damian Hinds outlined his vision for character and resilience education in England. As noted in their call for evidence, the Department for Education’s (DfE) working definition of character includes:

  • Believing that you can achieve
  • Being able to stick with the task in hand
  • Seeing a link between effort today and payback in the future; and,
  • Being able to bounce back from the knocks that life inevitably brings to all of us.

While this definition includes social and emotional skills that are important to thriving in life and work, it unhelpfully avoids evidence-based terminology like ‘resilience’, ‘self-efficacy’ and ‘persistence’. This risks making it more difficult for schools and teachers to identify and make use of relevant, high-quality research and interventions that build these skills in young people.

Schools’ access to quality guidance and evidence around ‘what good looks like’ will be particularly important when character becomes part of Ofsted’s new personal development judgement. Currently, almost a quarter of teachers in England (22 per cent) perceive their school to have no coherent approach – or a limited approach – to supporting students’ wider personal development (Source: Teacher Tapp Poll, April 2019).

As noted in our response to Ofsted’s draft inspection handbook, it is also essential that inspectors have a clear sense of what good and outstanding provision for ‘character’ and personal development looks like. Without this, there is a risk of inconsistency in the way schools’ provision is assessed. To date, guidance from DfE has focused on the development of ‘character’ through extracurricular activities, like sport and volunteering.

It remains to be seen whether the new Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, will continue to spearhead his predecessor's vision for character and resilience education in England. In the meantime, you can read Nesta’s full response to DfE’s character consultation here.

Wales

In an ambitious move, Wales has introduced an extensive ‘wider skills’ framework to its new draft curriculum for 2022. The framework extends beyond social-emotional skills to also include important higher-order cognitive skills – such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Unlike England, the Welsh curriculum proposes that these skills be developed through the curriculum in key learning areas, such as Science and Humanities.

For this approach to be impactful, Wales needs to provide teachers with more detail around how these wider skills link with curriculum content within the subject disciplines. Australia’s national curriculum, which makes specific links between core curriculum content and ‘general capabilities’ like critical and creative thinking, offers an example of how this can be done. To support educators, guidance and professional development is vital and should be based on the best available evidence of what works in developing these skills.

Given the debate that exists both nationally and internationally about which wider skills are important, it would also be valuable for the Welsh government to publish a rationale for the content and organisation of its wider skills framework.

You can read Nesta’s full response to the Welsh government’s consultation on its latest draft curriculum here.

Final Reflections

England and Wales’ renewed focus on broader skill development is a promising step forward. Wales’ approach is particularly progressive in its focus on a diverse array of higher-order and social-emotional skills through the core learning areas. While each country will have different priorities for developing their work and policy in this area, some key areas of focus could include:

  • Building the research and evidence base. For some skills, there is limited evidence on how they are best taught and developed, and we need to strengthen our understanding of ‘what works’.
  • Developing valid measurement and assessment tools. We need to learn more about what different levels of proficiency look like for broader skills and how these can be assessed.
  • Sharing evidence-based guidance with teachers and school inspectors. Consideration needs to be given to what form of guidance – whether CPD or detailed curriculum notes – will best support teachers as they implement provision for broader skills in schools. This also applies to school inspectors, who need a clear sense of what good and outstanding provision looks like.

If you’d like to discuss Nesta’s work in this area, we welcome you to get in contact with us at [email protected]

Author

Emma Sutherland

Emma Sutherland

Emma Sutherland

Assistant Programme Manager

Emma is an Assistant Programme Manager in Nesta’s Education team.

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Jed Cinnamon

Jed Cinnamon

Jed Cinnamon

Programme Manager, Education

Jed is a Programme Manager in the Education team at Nesta.

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