Soft Skills! What about ‘Essential’ Skills?

THIS is a question I have been asked a lot lately, both directly and indirectly through my role as a National Development Co-ordinator with an educational awarding body. This question has come about in discussions with different types of leaders of learning, teachers and school & college leaders.

Why call these skills Soft Skills when they are not soft, they are so ‘hard’ to achieve and be good at?

As stated I have had many conversations on the Soft Skills naming debate with many different people from different educational backgrounds. The one thing that comes across is that ‘Hard’ skills are used to explain subject knowledge learning e.g. the ability to name England’s kings and queens in order. It could also be for other more specific vocational skills that are used which cannot be transferred easily e.g. plumbing in a tap or wiring a plug.

People seem to understand the term Soft Skills as those that can be transferred from job to job or maybe skills that can be used in different life situations. Initially I quite liked the term transferable skills as they can be used in different contexts e.g. communicating effectively with the bank manager (life scenario) may well be used equally for communicating with your boss (work scenario). Same skill but transferred to a different situation. People seem to understand this concept and how important it is.

I then started to think more about the term ‘Essential Skills’. I do like the word ‘essential’ because it gives the term more feeling and may be more encompassing of the skills required in the 21st Century. Making it sound ‘hard’ to get and a must have. The word essential is powerful because, in my opinion, if you don’t have the Essential Skills then you may struggle to be successful in your life. We should not forget, of course, success means different things to different people. What we are looking for however is a term that can be used to suggest the skills needed for the modern world.

Essential skills could be described as Literacy, Numeracy, Communication, Writing, Thinking, ICT, Working with Others and Learning to Learn. For me these skills are important, but in the 21st Century we need other important skills as well like Problem Solving and Enterprise including the ability to take risks. For me, all these skills mentioned should all be a focus. Of course we should not forget about basic knowledge in subjects. When I say ‘basic knowledge’, I mean the basic and general knowledge we need in order to be succseful in life and work e.g. do we have the basic numeracy to function e.g. be able to manage a budget. I do not include being part of this the ability to name all the kings and queens of England in order! That may only useful for a pub quiz or if you want to work in an historical context e.g. Museum Curator or History Teacher.

THIS is the term I would like to put forward as the universal term to be used for skills learning – Essential Skills. I am making the call right now that around the world we get away from the term soft skills which may be seen by some as woolly and be possibly misinterpreted as easy. I am also making the call that these ‘Essential Skills’ should be made a priority as part of a school curriculum. I also support the call by Peter Jones (Dragons Den) for Enterprise Education to be part of a school curriculum. After all the misinterpretation of Enterprise is that it is all about business, when in fact Enterprise Skills are actually ‘Essential Skills‘ needed for life and work in the 21st Century.

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4 thoughts on “Soft Skills! What about ‘Essential’ Skills?

  1. Great stuff, Gareth! I use “essential skills” quite often, typically putting “leadership” in there as well: “essential leadership skills.” It doesn’t matter to me what the exact language is, as long as we get rid of the awful “soft skills”!

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  2. Scottish education system had a huge focus in enterprise in education covering 4 themes – enterprising teaching and learning; carer education; work based vocational learning; and entrepreneurial learning – embracing enterprise in its widest sense. These have now been incorporated through Curriculum for Excellence into – skills for learning (focus on Higher Order Thinking Skills using Blooms taxonomy for instance) skills for life (financial skills, how to wire a plug, put up a shelf, etc) and skills for work (employability, teamwork, resilience – those skills required for children and young people to make a well informed realistic decision about future career options and to support young people to make a positive transition post school). Lot of thought behind the concept and lots of joined up thinking with schools, organisations and employers. Latest instalment is the recommendations from the Commision for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce.

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    • Thanks for the comment. I am aware of the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland and I think it has many, many merits. Mostly around the comments you have made and how it hopes to create more rounded learners. I am also particularly impressed with the Welsh Baccalaureate which I discussed in a previous blog titled ‘A Different Baccalaureate Option for Soft Skills’. Please read about their system. It includes a skills challenge certificate which should again lead to a more rounded young learner. I am very interested in Enterprise Education and there will be a future blog dedicated to this. Thanks very much. Gareth.

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