The question of the provision of life-skills courses for young people always has at least one of my eyebrows raised. After all, what is school for, what is education for, if we are not teaching life-skills? By definition, shouldn’t education and school be centred around and focused on preparing our young people for life? Ask yourself, when was the last time you heard a core curriculum lesson called ‘Life-skills’? When did you last hear of a teacher with the title Head of Life-skills department? They may well exist, but they are as rare as hen’s teeth.
Our education system is still way too heavily influenced by the past and the legacy of the 3 R’s, when basic English and Mathematics skills became the focal point of schools and education. We believed that these skills were fundamentally more important than anything else – why? How did we come to this conclusion? My hunch is that it was very easy to test and measure someone’s ability to spell a word correctly or solve a mathematics question, consequently, it became easy to justify having these two subjects at the very heart of our school curricula.
A question that is becoming almost clichéd within education circles is ‘Are we teaching to survive or thrive’? After 35 years in or around education, it is clear to me that our reliance and obsession with measuring academic attainment and progress inevitably leads to some students thriving, but leaves most to just survive. It’s not hard to see that this system actually creates a huge social divide that eventually leads to the haves and the have-nots. I believe our system and our curricula should focus as much on Qualities as it does on Qualifications. That is why my belief is that all lessons should be life-skill courses for young people, regardless of which subject is being taught.
The issue is often exacerbated by universities & employers referring to these important qualities and life-skills as ‘soft-skills’, which further undermines their importance. I was recently keynote speaker at a conference of over 300 business leaders in Brighton, and I was asked by a prominent member of the audience what business could do better for young people and schools; I suggested that they looked at the Qualities of their young candidates as rigorously as they looked at their Qualifications. Interestingly, I am learning of more and more high-end companies that plan to, or already have, removed academic benchmarks from their recruitment process. In one business leader’s words, ‘soft-skills are the new degrees’.
So, what exactly are life-skills courses for young people? They are programmes, interventions, courses or events that are specifically designed to represent real life challenges with real life people in real life situations. Some of these situations can be created or simulated to reflect real life, or equally, they can be very real problems, conflicts or issues that have arisen and are used as vehicles to help the participants reflect and improve upon how they manage themselves and others. A good school-based example would be a Year 10 student following a Sports Leader Award who is asked to create a game for a group of younger students. Initially, this almost artificially created situation runs smoothly until there is a genuine heated dispute between two of the players. The Sports Leader has a very real problem to solve with real life people in a very real situation, which is arguably far more important than the original game they had devised.
At humanutopia ALL of our programmes are aimed at reflecting real life whilst developing a wide variety of skills. We divide these skills into three areas: personal skills, social skills, and workplace skills. Personal skills include challenging young people to reflect on the following statements:
- I can overcome obstacles
- I get involved
- I understand my behaviour and manage it well
- I can bounce back
- I am proud of my individuality
- I have real confidence
- I solve problems peacefully
- I show respect
As controversial as this may first appear, I would argue that helping young people become aware of these skills, then subsequently helping them to improve and develop them, is infinitely more important than ensuring they get a good set of exam results. After all – which are they going to need and use more in their daily lives? I would also add that once the young person has mastered all of the above, they are in a far better position and have a much stronger mindset to obtain a better set of grades.
Once young people have control of their own lives, we then attempt to support them to develop social skills, such as:
- I am tolerant
- I don’t judge people
- I have compassion for others
- I have empathy for others
- I can communicate well
- I accept people for who they are
- I have good relationships
- I can work in a team
- I cooperate well with others
Can you imagine, if a young person arrived at a job interview and set about demonstrating that they had developed and improved both the personal and social skills above, just how impressed the interviewer would be with the candidate sat in front of them? Can you then imagine just how excited the interviewer would become if the young person said, ‘I haven’t quite finished, because I have also developed these workplace skills’:
- I manage my time well
- I can express myself to large groups
- I am driven and motivated
- I am enthusiastic and passionate
- I am organised
- I prepare well and I’m thorough
- I am a good leader
If the young person hadn’t caught the attention and intrigue before this section, they almost certainly would once they provide this impressive list of qualities and attributes. The big difference between getting a good set of exam grades and developing and improving a wide set of life-skills is that the young person will continue to need these skills for the rest of their career and life. Ask any parent and they will tell you that almost all of these life-skills and qualities are essential to raising a family effectively.
I conclude by saying that I understand society, schools and business might not be ready for such a paradigm shift. However young people need to develop qualities as much as they need to have qualifications, and I think our education process should provide opportunities to do both with parity of esteem.