Carole Bishop assesses the role and importance of soft skills and describes how they’re central to a new suite of qualifications

You’re in a restaurant and you’ve just ordered a lovely chicken meal. As a side dish you’ve also ordered some greens — because you know they’re really good for you.

So, you start to eat your lovely meal, but you love the chicken so much that you fill yourself up and don’t have any room for the greens. Ah well, you think, the intention was there….shame you didn’t quite get to the greens. Maybe next time.

Let’s take this analogy into the FE sector, as it has a lot in common with how technical and vocational qualifications have been equipping young people with much-valued transferable skills — sometimes called soft skills.

It’s always been left up to the teacher or tutor to try and include the development of soft skills somehow within the core learning

They too, like the greens, are essential in life, but have historically been treated as something on the side and not part of any core learning or study.

There are many reasons for this, the main one being that core qualifications have focused on helping the learner acquire skills and knowledge within a specific subject. Other qualifications or programmes of learning were developed, such as key or employability skills — the idea being that these would be taken alongside the core qualification.

It’s always been left up to the teacher or tutor to try and include the development of soft skills somehow within the core learning. But, with pressures on time and resources, this has led to a very varied and inconsistent approach. And sometimes it just doesn’t happen at all.

With employers increasingly demanding soft skills, and research by Development Economics saying these skills are worth £88bn a-year to the UK economy, things have to change.

We’ve recently consulted extensively with schools, colleges, employers, professional bodies and higher education, to find out how technical qualifications can better prepare a young person for the workplace or for further learning and study.

Overwhelmingly they all felt that one of the biggest issues was the separation of soft skills from core subject learning. So then we asked them to prioritise which soft skills they felt were more important — and they chose communication, team working, problem solving and research.

When you think about it, there’s no real reason why these have to be taught as a separate strand.

For example, a student taking a qualification about IT could learn problem-solving skills in the context of diagnosing an issue with a computer network. They could learn research skills as they investigate possible solutions and associated costs and other implications.

And communication skills could be developed as they learn to present the various options to a client and agree the way forward.

This way, these all-important skills can be put at the very centre of a student’s learning. But why stop there?

We can also change the way we assess these skills to place a greater emphasis on their importance. If we make it impossible for a student to pass a module or unit without demonstrating the relevant soft skills, we’ll be ensuring that the qualification they’ve earned is truly one that meets the needs of employers.

These skills — such as team working, communication and problem-solving — will be taught and assessed as a central part of our Tech-levels offer, launched this academic year.

They are a response to the 2011 Wolf Report, which said that many vocational courses were failing to help students’ career prospects.

It’s vital that we serve up soft skills as part of the main course like this. After all, they’re worth billions more than a bowl of greens.

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