Bringing skills to the fore

Posted on 17th May 2021 in School News, Which London School?

Wendy Barrett, Headmistress of Cobham Hall School, considers how schools must become ‘inspirational champions of lifelong learning’.

Any school website will tell you that they equip their students for life beyond the school gates, but in 2021 what does that mean? Does that mean their students leave with a string of top grades, or with the ability to adapt to life’s ever-evolving, ever-changing nature? Which is more essential for life in the 21st Century, where a report by the McKinsey Global Institute determined that “60% of employers said that new graduates were not adequately prepared for the world of work” and that “40% of employers have difficulty filling entry level vacancies because applicants lack soft skills”? 2020 certainly required us all to have the ability to adapt to remote working, remote teaching and learning, and limited social interaction. With the global pandemic descending with alarming speed and disrupting virtually every facet of life as we knew it, strong mental health, and character traits such as resilience, adaptability and kindness had never been more important.

The World Economic Forum stated as far back as 2015 that ‘The gap between the skills people learn and the skills people need is becoming more obvious, as traditional learning falls short of equipping students with the knowledge they need to thrive. Good leadership skills as well as curiosity are also important for students to learn for their future jobs.’ In 2020, they published the top ten skills required by 2025, and of these, just two link to specific curriculum-based skills (Technology use, design, programming and control) whilst the remainder are soft skills including active learning, complex problem-solving, creativity, resilience and leadership.

The pandemic created a multitude of problems for schools and their students. Not only having to adapt to a new way of educating, but with the cancellation of examinations both this year and last year, there was a heavy emotional toll for many students. What would happen with their university offers, conditional on examination grades? What would happen to their future career plans without GCSE and A Level grades to fall back on? Yet perhaps, hidden with this gloomy forecast, was a nugget of potential. What if schools could become less examination-focused and more character-driven?

Elke Edwards, Founder and Creative Director, Ivy House London, believes it’s time for this discussion, with COVID-19 being the catalyst for change. “One of the key changes,” she states in Ivy House white paper ‘It’s Time’, “has been an increased focus on the human side of education. A focus on resourcing students with the knowledge and skills to deal with change, navigate uncertainty and stay well; skills that are not only of critical importance right now but set students up for success in the future.”

At Cobham Hall, we have always firmly believed that there is more to education than the confines of the classroom; that it is our role to support each student in the development of every facet of their character. As a result, character education is woven throughout our curriculum and co-curricular activities with students encouraged to step beyond their comfort zones, try new things and develop key skills – determination, perseverance, resilience and teamwork to name but a few. Equally, our pastoral provision provides students the tools and capability to take the gains of these skills and apply them to support, strengthen and maintain their mental health. Students are encouraged to be able to recognise both their own and their friends’ mental health needs, with the understanding that by looking after our students’ emotional, social and physical wellbeing, they feel happier and will thrive.

Yet there was one more step to take; it is one thing for students to be encouraged to use their initiative and take risks within the safety of a lesson, but quite another to apply those skills to ‘real-life’ situations. At what point does nurturing the development of soft skills become something tangible? At what point do students have that ‘Eureka!’ moment when they realise there is more in them than they think, as Cobham Hall’s motto declares?

This is why Cobham Hall introduced a ‘Life Skills’ curriculum, dedicated time within timetables to actively develop – and crucially, provide opportunities to hone – vital skills needed to compete and thrive in an ever-changing world. Mapped to our Personal Discovery Framework, modules have been designed to enhance social skills, such as teamwork, empathy, collaboration, and cultural awareness, as well as personal skills including problem-solving, presenting and public speaking, initiative, communication and resilience.

Within this practical-based ‘Life Skills’ curriculum, students will be working on exciting Dragons’ Den-style projects, which will see them develop products and learn about market research, marketing, costing, presentation skills, financial capability, team work and leadership. There will also be competitive teamwork projects raising money for local charities; projects involving event organisation; learning sign language; and discovering local history. Risk taking and personal development are key to these projects, and we aim for the students to be as autonomous as possible. We also plan to develop students’ social skills by enhancing links with, and providing opportunities to become an active member of, the local community. As part of this curriculum, we aim to embed aspirational thinking in our students and encourage them to break any remaining barriers imposed on them because of their gender and so will be inviting inspirational female speakers from a variety of fields to speak about their careers and experiences.

The last year has proven how critical both good mental health and polished life skills are; that they are essential and, it could be argued, proved to be much more irreplaceable than an examination outcome. Cobham Hall aims to provide a world-class education for students of all abilities, regardless of background, that enables them to be successful in a rapidly changing world.

It is by embracing students as individuals, and working to their strengths as well as supporting their weaknesses, that schools can become inspirational champions of lifelong learning. By providing as many varied and exciting opportunities as possible to sharpen crucial life skills, schools will have students that leave their settings with the grades they need to follow their chosen career paths, but importantly, also with the skills essential to adapt to and deal with situations and careers that no-one can currently prepare for or imagine. What a difference a year can make!

This article first appeared in the 2021/22 edition of Which London School? & the South-East, which you can read here: