Soft skills caught and taught

Roy Blatchford asks whether the so-called ‘soft skills’ can be taught successfully by schools


Confidence, resilience, independence – these companion attributes have become a rallying cry for the many commentators on social mobility in our schools. The argument runs: get all young people to feel more confident about themselves, to develop their resilience and to hone their independent skills – then so-called ‘achievement gaps’ will be closed.

Is this the elusive recipe for enhancing social mobility? Is it that easy? And what realistic part can schools play?

The subject of character and soft skills is firmly on the political agenda. While in office Prime Minister David Cameron got Whitehall thinking carefully about measuring happiness in society. The Department for Education produced a well argued report in August 2017 titled ‘Developing character skills in schools’; the Education Policy Institute studied employability and soft skills in its excellent research paper ‘Educating for our Economic Future’, published in October 2017.

And two recent and insightful books on the same subject are well worth dipping into: ‘Taught Not Caught’ by former Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan, and ‘The Character Conundrum’ by Matt Lloyd-Rose.

What are we talking about here in practice?

Take the following extract from a thoughtfully worded advertisement for new employees to join a five-star international hotel:

The type of person we are looking for can demonstrate:

  • A desire to improve themselves in terms of skills, knowledge and experience
  • Good organisational skills and high service standards
  • Patience, a sense of humour and an ability to accept and act on constructive feedback
  • An ability to work on their own initiative and also to be a good team player
  • Excellent and pro-active communication skills
  • An eye for detail and a willingness to improve all aspects of the service we offer
  • A positive attitude to all aspects of the job including enthusiasm, a professional and common sense approach and a dedication to the interests of the business.

If most eighteen year-olds were to feel confident enough to apply for such a position, we would probably hail that their parents and their teachers had done a pretty fine job, caught and/or taught.

Take another scenario. Imagine meeting one of your pupils, now aged 11, when they are 25. You meet by chance in a cafe and open a conversation. What do you wish to hear? You may well hope to hear that they continued to enjoy a good education beyond your classroom. More important, you probably want to find out that they are healthy in body and mind, confident, happy and fulfilled – a realisation of many of the soft skills that matter in life.

I have posed this scenario to hundreds of audiences around the world. Irrespective of culture and context, teachers comment on the ‘character stuff’ and rarely on, say, the young adult’s higher education qualifications. I recall the principal of an international school affirming that by age 25 he expected all his former students to be active and honest citizens, entrepreneurial in their chosen fields, and global in outlook.

It is rare to enter a school or college which does not – intellectually at least – value ‘soft skills’. Whether the school actually teaches the following, implicitly or explicitly, varies markedly: people skills, etiquette, attitudes, social and emotional intelligence, problem-solving, conflict resolution, time management, etc.

Some school leaders contest that these skills and attributes are largely innate, that they are ‘caught’ from parents, peers, teachers and social media models, and cannot be ‘taught’. Others argue that while the nature and nurture elements are strong, it is eminently possible to design courses through which soft skills can be taught – indeed, must be taught in order that many pupils can enhance their self-esteem and employability.

From years of teaching and observing a range of personal and social education classes, I conclude that, whilst often fun, engaging and containing valuable learning points, such courses do not contribute significantly to the broader soft skills agenda.

Rather, the best schools develop pupils’ innate character through carefully designed and implemented whole-school values, through their daily ethos, through the dignity of positive relationships between adults and students, through the consistency of high expectations. And not forgetting: ‘the school’s curriculum provides memorable experiences and rich opportunities for high quality learning and wider personal development and well-being’ (Ofsted 2009).

A couple of concluding reflections to start the New Year. Try them in assembly!

First, I came across the following agenda in an outdoor adventure centre. It made me reflect that perhaps soft skills are most effectively addressed away from formal classrooms. The centre judges its own success on the extent to which visiting students leave having absorbed and demonstrated these during their stay.

10 Things That Require Zero Talent

  • Being on time
  • Work ethic
  • Effort
  • Body language
  • Energy
  • Attitude
  • Passion
  • Being coachable
  • Doing extra
  • Being prepared

Second, may there always be space for the originals and mavericks of this world! They might have been inspired by loving or dysfunctional parents, by poor or accomplished teachers, but in the end they shape hard and soft skills to their own inimitable ends. Steve Jobs captured these people best, in relaunching Apple in 1997 (see YouTube):

Think Different

‘Here’s to the crazy ones.

The misfits.

The rebels. The troublemakers.

The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently.

They’re not fond of rules.

And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them,

glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.

Because they change things.

They push the human race forward.

While some may see them as the crazy ones,

we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think

they can change the world, are the ones who do.’



Roy Blatchford is currently working internationally on education system reform. His new book ‘Success Is A Journey’ will be published by John Catt later in the year.

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  1. One, and only one, of the problems with education is we instinctively want to turn things into subjects. In fact I believe we are conditioned by our history to do so, we perpetuate what we experienced in our success. Good students become teachers more often than not seeking out the environment in which they feel most comfortable perhaps as we seek that makes us feel safe and secure.

    Yes ‘soft skills’ are essential, they aid our ability to work with others, to collaborate, to get the best out of each other but are even more important when our learning environment does not meet our needs. This is why our present fixation with subjects and the resulting school environment will never aid social mobility, soft skills and academic subject prowess are in competition. One dominates the other and in doing so creates an environment that requires compliance and has little time for ‘individuality’ (a collective term I would suggest for ‘soft skills’).

    In order to promote social mobility and those things we identify within the term ‘soft skills’ we need to create an environment that promotes growth rather than trying to sculpt learners through subjects. A little like a gardener developing the garden, tending its soil, building shelter and creating irrigation in order that a range of plants and flowers can flourish rather than just the one. I know this first hand, a northern lad who failed his 11+ but who became a teacher because of the unique opportunities afforded him.

    My solution own solution has been to develop those skills that have enabled me to manage my learning environment to meet my own learning needs, This is a strategy I have used and continue to use with those I have taught and continue to help, adults and young learners alike. I have coined the term “Learning Intelligence” or LQ to describe not only a set of skills, attributes and attitudes but also behaviours. Seeing learning as a problem solving activity is key and provides the vehicle, not subjects, to developing life long learners and social mobility.

    For the first of many articles and discussions on the nature and application of LQ please explore this article and blog:

    Please by all means challenge me. Remember thinking differently is not a crime but compliance can seriously damage your learning!

  2. -Sunita Rajiv

    I have been a Value education teacher and always struggled to find various methods to see that my SS imbibe these values.
    Teaching from a textbook seems claustrophobically inappropriate to me. But there are ,as you rightly observed, subject related textbooks which are, by the end of the day , syllabus.
    Your article and comment s under it have cleared many doubts.
    Thanks a lot.
    Please share more such articles or titles of books.
    I would like to know, may I send you what I have churned out of my thinking and practice?

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