Rethinking assessment of essential skills

What should a good education include?

Hannah Senior  Education Associate at Skills Builder Partnership

Tom Ravenscroft CEO at Skills Builder Partnership

What should a good education include?

Certainly, it must include a strong understanding of the world, and strong foundational knowledge. It should also include character – that is, it should affect attitudes and the way that we make choices in the world. Finally, it should also include skills – the ability to do.

At Skills Builder Partnership, we believe that essential skills should be a core part of education and need to be taught and assessed with the same rigour, focus, and consistency as any other form of learning. Essential skills are those highly transferable skills that we need to do almost any task. After years of research, collaboration with employers and academics and working with schools and colleges, we have honed our focus to eight essential skills: Listening, Speaking, Problem Solving, Creativity, Aiming High, Staying Positive, Teamwork, and Leadership.

If we want to truly build and value these skills though, we also need to assess them.

Why build essential skills?

Essential skills are becoming increasingly important. ​A 2020 Teacher Tapp poll​ for the Careers & Enterprise Company saw 74% of teachers agree that​ “skills like teamwork and public speaking will equip pupils to secure a good job in these uncertain economic times”​. Meanwhile, a ​2019 CBI/Pearson report ​confirms that employers view wider character, behaviours and attributes to be the most important consideration when recruiting school and college leavers. According to this report, however, 40% of employers are “dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with wider character, behaviours and attributes” when recruiting​.

Advances in artificial intelligence and the adoption of new technologies, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, are changing the way we work and live; we can’t predict the job landscape of the future with any great level of certainty. We need to develop transferable skills to prepare us for lifelong learning. We need to develop human skills that can’t be automated, skills that enable us to adapt and to respond to local, regional and national needs and priorities (both economical and societal) in innovative ways. We need social and emotional skills to cope with this new unpredictability.

Currently, the extent to which we develop essential skills is influenced by our socio-economic status: there is evidence that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to achieve highly in these skills than their more affluent peers (Cullinane and Montacute, 2017). The Social Mobility Commission’s 2019 report on Extra-Curricular Activities, Soft Skills and Social Mobility​ ​reports an unequal access to opportunities for developing the life skills that are so important to employers, such as opportunities to take part in extracurricular activities. This unequal distribution of opportunity plays a role in the over-representation of those with independent school backgrounds in the UK’s top professions (Cullinane and Montacute, 2017).

The increasing focus of employers on essential skills is therefore a threat to social mobility unless we take action: “Giving young people from all backgrounds access to the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in life is key to bridging the gap” (The Sutton Trust, 2019).

This isn’t a new concern – in May 2012, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Mobility published a report outlining key truths about social mobility. The report concluded that “personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain”. They highlight the need to “recognise that social and emotional ‘skills’ underpin academic and other success – and can be taught”.

How do we build essential skills?

To build essential skills, we need a clear understanding of what those skills are and what progress in them looks like.

This year, we launched the ​Skills Builder Universal Framework​, developed in collaboration with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), ​Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (​CIPD), Gatsby Foundation, Business in the Community, Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) and the EY Foundation.

The Universal Framework breaks down each skill into measurable, teachable steps. It helps us to understand what progress looks like in each skill and we can use it to measure our competency in skills and set ourselves targets. The newly refined and tested Universal Framework is designed to support skills development at all stages of life. In this way, the building of essential skills in school or college fully aligns with how they are recruited for and supported by employers.

The Framework has been widely taken up – more than 700 organisations across education, employers and impact organisations are members of the Skills Builder Partnership. Beyond that, thousands of other schools, colleges, and other organisations are using the Framework to support how they build those essential skills too.

Practical tools

A key benefit of the Skills Builder Framework is that by breaking the skills down into sequential learning steps, we can assess when each component step has been mastered, and therefore track students’ progress against age-related expectations. It would be impossible to teach skills with the same rigour as other subjects without an understanding of students’ competence to inform what to work on next, and once we start assessing progress, all the effort that goes into these skills becomes meaningful and rewarded – as well as allowing us to learn the most effective ways of building them.

The schools and colleges we work with build skills rigorously through consistent measurement and formative assessment. We provide a variety of different tools and resources to support this, including the online Skills Builder Hub assessment tool and the online Skills Builder Benchmark.

Skills Builder Hub​ assessment tool enables teachers to reflect on the skills of their group as a whole – they assess what proportion of their students have achieved each step. This is a quick and easy way to understand the needs of learners against the Skills Builder Framework and gives insights into the needs of the class as a whole. Once teachers have reflected on their learners’ skills, they are guided to short lessons, extended projects, display materials and other resources to target areas for development and reinforce other skill steps. Teachers can then ​see the impact on learners’ essential skills with built-in tracking tools.

Skills Builder Benchmark​ is a new self-assessment tool which enables learners to identify essential skills strengths and areas for improvem​ent. Learners choose an essential skill and answer some structured questions to ​benchmark themselves against the Skills Builder Framework​. They then see their top essential skill strengths, areas for development and practical ideas to improve. They can download a personalised Skills Report to share with a teacher or tutor. ​Schools and colleges use Skills Builder Benchmark to facilitate targeted skills-building, and to measure the impact of the work they are doing with students.

Some of our schools also use our Skill Passports and Workbooks. These resources allow learners to build their own skills and gather a portfolio of evidence for each, and facilitate conversations about the skills between learners and teachers.

Encouraging engagement from teachers

Of course, there is no point in adding assessment for the sake of it. Across the Skills Builder Partnership, we see that schools and colleges doing this well focus on​ how the data can be used​, making sure teachers receive training beforehand so they can see it in action and understand its value. They reduce the stakes by making clear that this is a formative assessment which should be used to support teachers with planning. They also encourage teachers to keep returning to the assessment so that teachers see the impact of their work with students and use it as a formative tool.

W​hen essential skills are mastered, we unlock potential and enable students to achieve highly both academically and in employment. ​To make progress in essential skills achievable for all children and young people, measuring that progress ​is critical. ​Using this information formatively will increase the impact of our work with students and support them all to build the essential skills to succeed.

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