The start of the exam season every year always sparks off the same debates and discussions: Are schools becoming ‘exam factories’? The pressure young people are under with exams is raised, and concerns are expressed about the rise in mental health issues – and so on.

The actual ‘value’ of the examinations that pupils sit is rarely questioned, despite the fact that business leaders and employers consistently comment on the skills gap that exists – and complain that many young people simply do not possess the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace.

Increasingly, soft skills are being heralded as the most important skills of all, so why aren’t schools doing more to develop young people’s soft skills?

Soft skills are needed to be successful in the workplace

The argument is that hard skills (such as exam grades) will get you the interview, but it is soft skills that will actually get you the job – and make you a success in it. Exam grades are the keys that open doors for young people. Indeed, without certain grades, people find that they cannot enter a particular profession or career path. Essentially, they find that doors are slammed shut.

But once a door of opportunity is open to them, it is likely to be soft skills (rather than hard skills) that play a bigger part in determining how successful somebody proves to be in a role.

Of course, for schools, a major problem is that it’s questionable whether soft skills can be ‘taught’ at all, in the conventional sense. Because of this, it would be virtually impossible to assess the progress pupils are making in a soft skill. Furthermore, it doesn’t bear thinking about what a GCSE Leadership or GCSE Problem Solving Skills syllabus and examination might look like!

No, the traditional means of assessing ability and measuring attainment would never really work with soft skills. What’s more, schools should not be criticised for delivering a narrow academic curriculum. This is the system that government has created – a system of relentless accountability through league tables and inspection – a situation made considerably worse because of budget cuts. Schools have no real option but to continue to jump through the hoops that are laid out in front of them.

Soft skills cannot be overlooked

However, despite all the pressures schools are under, soft skills simply cannot be overlooked and ignored. Businesses need young people who finish education and join the workplace to have skills in leadership, teamwork and problem solving. Companies are crying out for candidates with interpersonal skills and who are flexible and adaptable, as well as having a strong work ethic.

Above all, perhaps, young people need to have strong communication skills and considerable emotional intelligence to thrive in the world of work. Educators are simply doing young people a disservice if we do not do more to help them develop these skills at school.

The current curriculum doesn’t provide enough focus on soft skills, so schools need to explore other opportunities. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award is one well-established option, but more needs to be done to prepare young people for the future.

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