Essential skills: Who ever got 97% of teachers to agree to anything?

Tom Ravenscroft.jpg

New research from the Sutton Trust shows 97 per cent of teachers say life skills are at least as important as academic qualifications. Employers and students agree.

It is also clear from its research that unequal access to opportunities to build these skills is playing a major role in the under-representation of more disadvantaged young people in top professions. These skills are a critical missing piece in our education system.

We have an opportunity now for a radical shift: not just to try to give pupils more extra-curricular clubs but also to fundamentally recognise essential interpersonal, communication, self-management and problem-solving skills at the heart of our curriculum. And the experience of more than 250 school leaders taking a pioneering new approach shows that it can be done. 

A view from the classroom

This challenge is deeply personal to me. It starts as a fresh-faced teacher in a challenging secondary school in Hackney in East London. What struck me the most was that the 14 and 15-year-olds in my classroom seemed to really struggle with what I saw as quite basic skills – being able to communicate with each other, organise themselves or stick at solving problems.

I saw it was holding back the learning in my classroom - and the Sutton Trust’s report highlights exactly that. But I also knew that, beyond the school gates, my students were simply not going to have the support structures to enable them to thrive without these skills. I feared for what was going to happen when they were on their own – in college, at university or in employment. 

Enabling Enterprise

Students from more privileged backgrounds often benefit from the parental networks and extra-curricular opportunities that give them more opportunities to build these skills. But for students without those advantages, we need to be thinking about how we can build these essential skills with the same rigour as any other academic learning.

Just encouraging more extra-curricular activities is not the answer. We do not have the time to just hope every child and young person can pick up these skills by osmosis. Nor should we ever fall into the trap of presuming these skills are just innate – and so some students just won’t be able to build them.

Enabling Enterprise worked with more than 85,000 students in the last year alone to make these skills a core part of the curriculum – and we found every child and young person could build them. 

The problem and the solution

There is a solution to the challenge this new report so effectively highlights. It is to teach essential skills with the same rigour as two other vital skills we are very comfortable with teaching – literacy and numeracy.

Such an approach shares many familiar principles. Firstly, we have to agree what these skills are. At Enabling Enterprise - after exhaustive research and work with employers, entrepreneurs and educators - we have eight skills that we focus on consistently: teamwork, leadership, creativity, problem-solving, listening, presenting, aiming high and staying positive.

We then build these skills consistently with children from the age of three right up to when they are 18. To be rigorous, we also need to measure these skills, with the same approach as we take to reading ages. Knowing what students can and can’t do allows us to focus on the next teachable chunk of a skill – whether learning how to take turns or resolve conflicts in teams.

Finally, we need to ensure these skills are transferable. We need young people to be able to take these skills they build in school and apply them in the rest of their lives. That means regularly taking them out to meet employers – from airports to accountancies, and banks to building sites – so they can see the skills move.

We’ve seen through our work with more than 200,000 children and young people to date that the gap in essential skills is real. But it is also entirely fixable. And when it is fixed, we truly enable the possibility of social mobility and for everyone to thrive.

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Tom Ravenscroft is Founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise, an award-winning social enterprise working with schools across the country to build the essential skills of 3 to 18-year-olds. His first book, entitled ‘The Missing Piece: The Essential Skills that Education Forgot’ is published by John Catt Educational Publishing in October.

You can find out more about the tools and resources mentioned in the blog at

The Sutton Trust’s report, ‘Life Lessons: Improving essential life skills for young people’ can be found at