Soft Skills: the sacred meets the profane


So here’s the blog…

The best of the Thursday evening chats with #ukfechat are like this. Starts off with an eerie quietness, a light breeze rustling over the blades of grass, and maybe some tumbleweed starting to move across across your line of sight. At some moment the wind picks up. There is a flurry of the fascinating and the frivolous, and then the maelstrom of meaning begins. When you’re in the chat you focus on replies and conversations, particular lines of discussion. When you’re hosting, there are moments when you just close your eyes and feel the turbulence buffeting pleasantly against your face.

Last night I was hosting. We were chatting about soft skills. The background reading is here in a short blog I put on the website. The questions I posed were from the blog and from the current consultation on soft skills led by McDonald’s. The conversations were informed and informative. But something in the timeline was niggling me. There was one of those issues where the issue wasn’t the issue.

People were happy to define soft skills, were fully convinced of the importance of soft skills, and yet they were uncomfortable with soft skills. They could see the link with employability, but didn’t want soft skills to be defined just through employability. They could ‘see’ the development of soft skills in learners, but they were reluctant to try to measure it. Which is probably where the reference to embryo research came from, from the confluence of the sacred with the profane.

Teaching, as I have said elsewhere, is not a skill: it’s a relationship. Teaching is an intimate profession, dealing with the development and maturation of the young person. An appalling interviewee on Newsnight this week said, “Teachers are there to be fairly anodyne imparters of knowledge…” That is the very last thing that teachers should be.

Generally though, we are very comfortable with the idea of teaching and assessing knowledge of facts. We are also comfortable with teaching and assessing ‘hard’ vocational skills, like cutting hair and laying bricks. When we engage with the softest skills, however, it seems like we are engaging with the essential of who that person is and how they conduct themselves in the world. Teachers seemed comfortable to help develop these skills, but measuring them, scoring them, caused great reluctance.

Yet to develop any skill, you need to be able to assess and determine the baseline that is your starting point. Employers are saying these soft skills are the skills that make the difference, that enable them to differentiate between candidates and employees. After years of fighting a losing battle seeking parity of vocational qualifications with academic ones, it seems now that soft skills trump them both?

We live in an age where nothing is true unless a measurement can be attached to it. No one appears in a newspaper or magazine story unless we know their age. Our professional lives are framed in targets, KPIs, and national averages. We are in a developmental business, developing people, but the funding of development demands measures of progress, distance travelled and value added.

There’s nothing soft about soft skills. McDonald’s research says that these skills will soon be worth £100billion to the UK economy. But we are going to have to make a decision. We will either have to agree that these essential skills core to the person can be reliably assessed, measured, and certificated, or we are going to have to accept that some of the most important (and expensive) things we do in the education system are intangible, unmeasurable and have to be taken on trust. Choose your seismic shift…

About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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