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Essential skills and their impact on education outcomes: a quantitative analysis of the British Cohort Study
January 13, 2021

New research conducted by the Skills Builder Partnership explores the relationship between higher levels of essential skills, using proxy measurements, and higher literacy, numeracy and career aspirations at ages 10 and 16. Read the full report here.

Research Context

Schools and colleges are increasingly thinking about the development of wider skills and competencies beyond singular academic achievement, including essential skills. A growing number of studies have demonstrated a connection between building these broader skills and competencies and outcomes including reductions in absenteeism, engagement with learning, and decreasing behavioural problems.

There are also a number of studies that demonstrate a link between building some of the essential skills and academic outcomes at primary level. These include links between essential skills like problem solving, staying positive, and teamwork, and improvements in mathematics and reading scores. The evidence at secondary level is in shorter supply, but there is some evidence in higher education settings linking essential skills with improved academic engagement and outcomes.

We can construct theoretical models of the link between building essential skills and how that would support such improvements. These include supporting students’ capacity to learn effectively, their ability to build positive relationships with peers, and developing their self-efficacy. Together, these provide a promising basis for testing the link between essential skills development and academic outcomes.

The new report launched today by Skills Builder Partnership seeks to make a further contribution to building the existing evidence base using the British Cohort Survey which provides a rich dataset for longitudinal analysis. It also gives scope to focus on children and young people and to explore links between essential skills and other outcomes.

Key findings

The analysis sought to test five hypotheses, by linking together datasets around the British Cohort Survey (1970). In doing so, we found that higher levels of self-reported essential skills levels led to:

  • Higher levels of literacy at primary school, as measured by the Edinburgh Reading Test: We found that, for example, moving from essential skills score of 8 (median value) to 12 (maximum value) leads to an equivalent gain of the same child moving from 50th percentile to 80th percentile in the Edinburgh Reading Test.
  • Higher levels of numeracy at primary school, as measured by the Friendly Math Test: We found that an additional point on the essential skill score is associated with, on average, the equivalent gain in numeracy score of a student moving from the 50th percentile of (reported) performance up to the 60th percentile, everything else being constant.
  • Higher levels of mathematics qualifications at secondary school, as measured by O-Level and CSE results: We found that, for example, increasing skills score from median to maximum score (score 20 to 30) the probability of the same students attaining a higher mathematics grade increase by 50%.
  • Higher academic performance, as perceived by teachers: We found that an increase in essential skills increases the likelihood that teachers will judge the cohort member to be a relatively higher academic performer. To give an example, if a young person reported an increase from the median skills score of 20 to 25, they are 55% more likely to be perceived a high performer by their teacher.
  • Higher levels of career aspiration: We found that participants with higher essential skills were more likely to be clear on their career aspirations, and to have higher career aspirations. In general, the analysis indicated that individuals who have higher levels of skills are more likely to end up in professions in the top brackets.


There is plenty of justification for building essential skills in their own right: these are skills that are inherently valuable and which have been long called-for by employers. There are often frequent calls from teachers, parents, and students themselves to make these essential skills a core part of a good education.

This report adds to the wider evidence though that these essential skills have an additional benefit for learning itself – and at both primary and secondary age. While this report can only indicate correlation, it adds further weight to what a growing number of schools and colleges in the Skills Builder Partnership have long been reporting: that these essential skills not only support learners’ broader development, but have a role in supporting learning itself too.

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