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What are ‘life skills’ and what do teachers think about them?

The Labour party recently committed to the long term goal of “a sustained rise in young people’s school outcomes over the next decade, building young people’s life skills.” But what are these skills, how do they improve outcomes and what do teachers think about them?

The skills that we are talking about are the highly transferable skills that everyone needs to do almost any job, which make knowledge and technical skills fully productive. They are sometimes called ‘soft skills’, ‘employability skills’ or ‘21st Century skills’ (and a subset are sometimes called ‘oracy’). 

Following cross-sectoral input and extensive research, the Essential Skills Taskforce identified the 8 skills that are commonly referred to and that have universal application. We defined these and broke them down into a sequence of teachable and measurable steps in the Universal Framework for essential skills.

The 8 skills, which feature prominently in Labour’s commitments, are:

  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Creativity
  • Problem solving
  • Aiming high
  • Staying positive
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership

Research shows that these skills are important for life. But it also goes much further: they have a big impact on education and work too. That’s why they are essential. Let’s dig into the research on this.

Essential skills for life

Higher levels of essential skills, as measured with the Universal Framework, are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction. When controlling for work status, age, gender, income, education level, and health, research shows that a 1 standard deviation increase in essential skill score is associated with a 0.17 to 0.22 standard deviation increase in positive response to the life satisfaction measures used by the ONS. To put that into perspective, a 2.2 step increase in essential skill score is associated with a half step increase in life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10.

Essential skills can drive social mobility too. There are indications that essential skills are more strongly associated with improved life outcomes for those with lesser prior social advantage. Controlling for other variables, we find that the relationship between essential skill level and income is stronger and more statistically significant for those without a parent

who attended university than for those with a parent who attended university. And cluster analysis reveals a grouping in the UK population who despite low levels of advantage enjoy improved life outcomes with higher levels of essential skills. 

Essential skills for education

71% of individuals believe essential skills are important for academic performance. While this is significant, an even greater proportion (84%) believe that these skills should be taught in lessons in school and college.

Cluster analysis reveals the impact of an ostensibly “good education” that builds literacy and numeracy but omits essential skills. Around 18% of the working population has above average education level, literacy, and numeracy, and yet a very low essential skill score. This group has the worst job satisfaction, life satisfaction, and sense of their life being worthwhile. They also earn much less than their peers. 

Essential skills for work

92% of working age people in the UK believe that essential skills are important for success within their career.

And if you have higher levels of essential skills, you are more likely to be in work. Moving from the lower to upper quartile of essential skill score is associated with a 25% reduction in the odds of being unemployed. In other words, 5.2% of individuals with a lower quartile skill score (8.2) are likely to find themselves unemployed, compared to 3.9% of those with an upper quartile skill score (11.2).

You are also likely to enjoy a significant wage premium if you have higher levels of essential skills. An increase in essential skill score of one standard deviation is associated with a wage premium of between 6.9% and 8.8%. This is very similar to the wage premium associated with the same increase in numeracy: 6.1% to 7.6%. Looking at this another way, moving from the lower quartile essential skill score to the upper quartile essential skill score is associated with a wage premium of 9.4% to 12.0%. For the average full-time worker in the UK, this equates to an extra £3,600 to £4,600 each year.

How do teachers view these life skills?

We have seen that ‘life’ skills are in fact essential not just for life, but for work and education too. 

New research reveals that nearly all teachers in the UK, like the wider population, intuitively recognise the value of essential skills. 92% view explicitly teaching essential skills as important in preparing learners for both life and work, with almost half (47%) believing this to be very important for employability and education. 

Teaching essential skills in education is an incredibly popular policy with teaching professionals. A total of 94% support this approach, with the majority (52%) “strongly” supporting building essential skills in education.

In fact, for a significant majority (67%), being able to prepare young people for successful lives, including through teaching essential skills, is important to their reasoning for remaining in the profession.

Unfortunately,  just under a quarter (24%) of teaching professionals agree with the statement that essential skills are currently being taught sufficiently in education. Only 3% agree strongly that they are taught sufficiently.

How do teachers think we should get essential skills into classrooms?

One policy lever for getting essential skills into classrooms is the national curriculum. 86% of teaching professionals agree that the national curriculum should include essential skills, with almost half (47%) agreeing strongly. 

A very high proportion (85%) also see threading essential skills throughout subjects as being important to them being taught successfully. Over half (52%) think separate lessons on essential skills are important and 74% see the potential for special projects (e.g. cross-curricular projects).

They see the potential for assessment to shift to being more holistic to include essential skills (86% support this) as well as multi-modal (92%).

The need for upskilling in this to-date under-invested area is clear. 81% of teachers report they would be likely to pursue CPD on how to teach their young people essential skills. Three quarters (75%) say they would pursue CPD to build their own essential skills.

Finally, 87% support implementation of a universal framework - which breaks down the 8 skills into a sequence of teachable, measurable steps - across all schools to enable the teaching of essential skills. Over three quarters (77%) think the framework would have a positive impact on young people’s employment outcomes, and 66% believe the framework would have a positive impact on education outcomes.

Read the full report: skillsbuilder.org/essential-skills-tracker

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