A decade ago, I was looking out across my classroom in Hackney in East London and it struck me. The students in front of me were 14 or 15 years-old. They were not expected to continue in the school’s sixth form, which meant that the realities of college or employment were just eighteen months away.
Yet at the same time, before every lesson I invested time in trying to work out the optimal configuration of students’ seats around the classroom to avoid disruption. I was the one taking responsibility for getting my students’ coursework completed on time. There was no scope for creativity or problem-solving because the march to decent grades was so clearly laid out.
Something had clearly gone wrong. My students were not showing the skills that they would need to thrive in that classroom, and were far from equipped for the rest of their lives.
The Missing Piece
A great education should achieve three things: It should set up children and young people with the knowledge and understanding to make sense of the world. It should support the development of good character, and the ability to make good choices. And it should build the essential skills to do what they needed to thrive.
But in my classroom those skills were missing: teamwork, leadership, creativity, problem-solving, presenting, listening, aiming high and staying positive. All were skills that employers, universities, colleges and entrepreneurs were crying out for – and yet, they didn’t feature at all in what I was being asked to do as a teacher.
In my classroom, I developed a simple programme for my students. I directly taught them the skills – for example, how to project confidence through your body language when you are about to start a presentation. Or how to create SMART targets. Then I got them to run their own projects to practise the skills – whether tutoring younger students, washing cars or designing a clothing range.
To illustrate that these skills were not just essential for learning, but also underpinned employability, we visited a number of businesses in the City of London. This linking was pivotal to adding real purpose to the learning in the classroom too.
It was seeing an impact on my students that encouraged me to share the programme more widely – my students were visibly more engaged, confident and when we got their results it showed that there had been no trade-off between building these essential skills and their wider learning. Quite the reverse, as more than half secured a top grade in their qualification.
In 2009 I set up Enabling Enterprise to share this programme I had created for my students more widely. And in 2010 we were the last participating organisation in the Learning Launchpad programme run by the Young Foundation. Over the following year we honed our model and started out on an exciting growth trajectory. In the last year, seven years after starting out we worked with over 86,000 children and young people across the country – and cumulatively have delivered more than 250,000 programmes to students.
This is exciting, but I was convinced that building these skills was so critical that our mission should be to ensure that one day, every student builds the essential skills to succeed. And against that goal we were just getting started, working in just 4% of the most deprived schools of the country.
To achieve the change we wanted to see in every classroom and for every student, we had to first consolidate everything we had learnt in the previous years. The result is a book, The Missing Piece: The Essential Skills that Education Forgot. It busts some of the myths that have stopped us teaching these skills rigorously in the past, and makes clear just how valuable these skills are for learning and life.
The book also draws out the six principles that we see time and again in brilliant schools who are building these essential skills for every one of their students. These are often counterintuitive – and certainly go against the mainstream approach.
Finally, though, writing the book really focused my mind on the future. What would it really take to ensure that one day, as a matter of course, every child and young person built these essential skills to thrive?
The next stage of the journey
We realised that it would only be collaborative action that would achieve our mission. So, alongside capturing everything we’ve learnt in the book, we’ve also made available resources which we hope will be really helpful to parents, teachers, and other organisations working in the space:
- The Skills Builder framework which breaks down each of the eight essential skills we focus on into teachable chunks – and helps to assess the strengths and development areas of children and young people.
- Useful guides and video resources which help to build these skills – whether at home, in school or in other youth settings.
We still have a long way to go – but over fifty organisations are already working together on the Skills Builder framework, and the resources have been used thousands of times. Together, we can ensure that every child and young person builds the essential skills to thrive.
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 www.TheEssentialSkills.org