Last month, thousands of young people and teachers up and down the country waited with bated breath as examination results were revealed. Many young people will see these results as crucial to their future, and for many schools it will define the organisation as a success - or not.
But young people should be leaving with much more than grades: they should be well prepared for work and life beyond the school gates.
At Nesta we believe education must support young people to acquire a broad set of skills, capabilities and attitudes to succeed in life and work.
They need to be independent thinkers, resilient and adaptable. They need to understand how to look after their own wellbeing, both physical and mental. They must be able to work well with, and lead, others. They need to be equipped to solve complex problems. They must have opportunities to be creative, have a variety of cultural experiences and through their schooling understand more about themselves - and what they want to achieve in life.
These skills and attributes should come alongside strong academic success. Ideas that the Google age has made learning knowledge defunct are misled: we can’t solve complex problems without a solid knowledge base, and research has shown broad-based and specialist knowledge will continue to be important in the future economy. The dichotomy of ‘skills vs. knowledge’ is a false one.
Yet academic success on its own is not enough. If we want to prepare well-rounded, happy, resilient young people, they need a rich and broad curriculum and range of experiences.
There is broad acceptance amongst teachers and students that young people should be equipped with broader life skills before leaving education. Research has also shown that a set of broad skills, alongside knowledge, will be important in the future economy - including complex problem-solving, collaboration and creative skills. Employers have long made the case for such wider skills but our current education system does not support consistent development of them for all students.
The UK school system has one of the most high-pressure accountability structures in the world: schools, teachers and individual students are all judged on success in high-stakes examinations - from the age of five through to 18. Although Ofsted does consider a broader picture, including social, moral, cultural and spiritual provision, academic performance dominates inspection decisions.
Some skills can be and are built through the existing curriculum. Students are required to deploy their knowledge and skills to solve complex problems across academic subjects - combining different concepts to solve maths problems, thinking critically about sources of evidence in history, or developing arguments about interpretations of literature. Many schools are doing fantastic work to support the broader skills, wellbeing and abilities of their students.
However, under the rigid accountability system, with a strong focus on the EBacc subjects at secondary, and English and maths at primary, these wider skills are often the added extras. Schools are not rigorously assessed on how they develop wider skills or capabilities, resulting in little incentive for schools to prioritise them. Teachers are often not trained in how to support broader development, and their teaching is structured to fit within the existing curriculum. We can’t assume that students will just pick these skills up as an unintentional byproduct of the current curriculum: that somehow they will just ‘rub off’ on young people.
There is growing evidence that it is our most disadvantaged young people that do not develop the broader skills and capabilities that they need - a significant barrier to social mobility. There are often fewer opportunities for students in more disadvantaged communities to take part in extra-curricular learning, just one way that collaboration, creativity, confidence or resilience could be developed. This is worsened by the context of cuts to youth community services, meaning there is increased pressure for schools to ‘fill the gap’.
In an environment where time in schools is tight and budgets are even tighter, there is a need to develop innovative, low-cost interventions that can - purposefully and effectively - boost the social and emotional, problem-solving and collaboration skills of young people. There is a need for interventions that are rooted in the current evidence of what works in the development of these skills. Although the evidence base is in need of development, it gives us a starting-point, and programmes in this space must continue to strengthen it through robust evaluation.
Nesta will be seeking to support programmes and interventions that use this existing evidence. This might be, for example, programmes that support the teaching of metacognitive strategies to support problem-solving and critical thinking, or programmes that develop whole-school approaches and prepare teachers or other programme leaders with carefully designed training.
We will be publishing further information on our new work in this space, including how we will describe the skills we want to support, using the most promising evidence as a starting point.
One of the biggest challenges is the lack of a shared language - employers, educators and academics all use different terminology to talk about these skills. Whether it’s future skills, essential life skills, higher-order cognitive skills or soft skills, we are often referring to the same thing. We will be exploring how we can communicate the nature and importance of these skills more consistently.
There are promising models out there - including the EEF’s framework, SPECTRUM, that includes concepts such as resilience and motivation. There remains however work to be done to improve the consistency of language, its links to the evidence base, and in particular to link employers’ understanding of these skills and attributes to how schools and education researchers explore them.
We believe that supporting high-potential interventions with funding to grow their programmes and develop their evaluation processes will contribute to a strengthening of provision in this space. If the most effective approaches - whether delivered by charities, schools or businesses - can develop their scale and evidence of impact, then more schools will be able to access this provision. It is of paramount importance that provision is low-cost and feasible to deliver within the context of the current curriculum and accountability structure.
Our work in this area will also contribute to the growing case for building character and resilience in students. Damian Hinds, the current Secretary of State, has indicated a strong interest in developing young people beyond academic success. In a recent speech on social mobility he made the case that ‘you won’t crack social mobility by only focusing on exam results’, and is supporting the Social Mobility Commission’s work to understand ‘how extracurricular activities, networks and the development of so-called soft skills can influence social mobility, looking at the gaps between disadvantaged young people and their peers.’ He believes this is a project for the long-term: ‘a challenge for the long haul.’
We will be launching funding and research in this area that contributes to this long-term project: building an education system where young people are prepared for their futures, not just the exam hall.
If you are interested in working with us in this area - on research, innovation or funding programmes - please contact us at [email protected]