Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Hard vs soft skills


Policy makers and employers have been discussing the need for employability skills for years but there is still no consensus on what should be taught. Chris Tyler worries that the current definition of functional skills is too limited.

Whether known as 'core', 'common' W'or 'key' over the years, employability skills often have been distinguished by a lack of popularity and commitment from many students and teachers, perhaps because there has always been confusion and debate over what they entail.

And now we are to have functional skills that are, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA), "essential for life, learning and work".

In the recession, employability skills have increasing importance for young people seeking work. The challenge facing educators now is not only defining what they are but ensuring that they are successfully introduced and integrated into the learning experiences that we offer.

Economic challenges

In March 2009, Sir Mike Rake, chairman of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), claimed that: "Employability skills are a major issue for business and the UK economy."

He detailed the importance of personal, management and communication skills needed by young employees to improve their effectiveness in the workplace. His aim, he said, is to encourage more businesses to lead in meeting the skills challenges of the modern economy.

However, current further education planning is based largely on a model from the 2006 Leitch Report, where direct correlation between skills, productivity and employment is stressed and providers are urged to raise skills standards in order to ensure the future position of the UK in relation to other countries that have overtaken it in productivity. Personal skills are made secondary to the need to upgrade technology and become globally competitive.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) website clearly confirms current government policy: "Improving the nation's skills is at the heart of the government's agenda to ensure that the UK is a powerhouse of prosperity and social justice."

With the introduction of Train to Gain funding that supports the development of specific skills at NVQ levels 2 and 3, and changes to adult learner funding that clearly link the acquisition of qualifications to direct enhancement of national productivity, current definitions of 'skills' concentrate increasingly on those that can be identified and assessed.

While these skills may include wider elements of employability skills, the focus is mostly on acquisition of specialist skills that will improve productivity.

Hard and soft skills

There is a wealth of research around what have been described as 'generic employability skills' over the past 30 years. For example, in 1979 the Further Education Unit (FEU) published its seminal paper A Basis for Choice, outlining a common core of skills. It built on this in Basic Skills (1982) by setting the target "to bridge the gulf between academic and non-academic training and education".

In the past, a common factor for definitions of core, common or key skills has been that they are not strictly limited to the 'hard skills' of communications, numeracy and information technology but also include 'soft skills' such as some form of problem-solving, working with others and improving on personal learning and performance.

This was recognised in Curriculum 2000 with its attendant funding model which introduced key skills in an entitlement programme for all 16 to 19 year-old college students.

Usually the first three hard key skills were accredited within subject areas or through specialist workshops and the three soft key skills were incorporated in the specialist aspects of each subject studied.

A 2008 report from the Learning and Skills Network (LSN) explains that the range of current pilot tests and trials in post-16 education offers opportunities to explore which soft skills help someone to obtain a job and remain employable, but also, importantly, to explore mechanisms for developing and measuring these skills.

The range of offers that will affect young people's preparation for work includes functional skills, diplomas, the Qualifications and Credit Framework, and foundation learning, as well as existing opportunities through GCSEs, A levels, NVQs and vocational apprenticeships.

However, the past year's pilot of functional skills in English, ICT and maths indicates that there may be a narrowing of the options available to many young people to learn the soft skills.

Functional skills will be generally available at levels 1 and 2 from 2012 as independent or integrated qualifications and will not - contrary to earlier suggestions - become compulsory for the achievement of GCSEs in their corresponding subjects. Apprenticeship qualifications will include them and they will form part of the 14-19 suite of diplomas.

Recently the QCDA confirmed that no decision has yet been made on separate accreditation and recognition of the 'soft' key skills, and that BIS will decide on this and the introduction of level 3 at some future, unspecified, date.

This raises concerns as the BIS interpretation of functional skills depends heavily on their relationship to economic prosperity and, through the strictures of current funding mechanisms, to their definition and assessment.

However, many employers argue that, although they require employees to have basic communication, ICT and numeracy skills, they want something more than that.

Flexibility and initiative

The CBI supports the development of functional skills in its current form. But it represents larger companies that will have their pick of employees. For the small and medium employers that constitute 93 per cent of firms in the UK, there are other skills that are equally important in their young employees.

A recent LSN report for the University of Nottingham emphasises that generic employability skills are important because jobs today require flexibility, initiative and the ability to undertake many different tasks.

It states: "They are not as narrowly prescribed and defined as in the past and generally they are more service-oriented, making information and social skills increasingly more important."

In a difficult job market, the need for young people to acquire functional skills alongside specialist vocational skills is obvious.

But ASCL is clear that we must not allow a limited government focus on economic skills development to obscure the need for today's young people to develop the wider skills that will help them to meet the challenges that a shifting jobs market and uncertain future holds for them.

Chris Tyler is ASCL's colleges specialist.

Functional skills

In September this year, teaching will begin across England on new functional skills in English, mathematics and ICT. The new regulatory criteria for functional skills were published by Ofqual in November 2009. These will form the backbone of the new qualifications which will be accredited in spring this year.

Functional skills will be available as a free-standing qualification at entry level, level 1 and level 2. After national introduction in September, functional skills will feature within each of the four qualification pathways for 14-19 year olds - GCSEs and A levels, apprenticeships, the diploma and Foundation Learning - with the method of teaching and delivery differing for each of these routes.

They will replace the current key skills qualifications and form part of the national curriculum for 11-16 year olds. Subject to successful piloting, functional skills will also replace current adult literacy and adult numeracy qualifications from September 2012.

Eleven awarding organisations offered functional skills within the pilot and many of these developed innovative assessment methods to meet the requirements of a range of learners in different educational settings. All centres that are introducing functional skills in September 2010 should access the training and support available from the functional skills support programme: www.fssupport.org In addition to this, QCDA has produced case studies from the functional skills pilot which are available at www.qcda.gov.uk/functionalskills

Employability skills

Hard skills

Information technology

Soft skills

Working with others
Personal learning

Case study
Making an investment in functional skills

As a large centre, South Downs College invested a great deal of time and effort to ensure the smooth introduction of functional skills. Donna Wilmshurst, head of key skills, talks about the practical implications of such a major change.

In terms of implementation, we began by identifying skill specialists who teach every cohort to make up our functional skills delivery team. This included entry level 16-19 year-olds, mainstream 16-19 year-olds and post-19 learners. We got together as a team at the end of May 2008 and looked at sample assessment materials from seven different awarding organisations to decide which would be most appropriate for our learners.

We eventually opted for two different awarding organisations - one for ICT and mathematics and another for English - and devoted time to sourcing relevant teaching materials and resources. Support from the Functional Skills Support Programme from the QCDA also gave us a head start.

The Functional Skills Support Programme (FSSP) modules we ran were really useful in helping us think about how to successfully embed functional skills in teaching and learning as a whole. FSSP trainers came into the college and helped us set up and deliver the modules.

Staff spent the first five weeks of the autumn term getting to know new learners before deciding which groups should take part in the pilot. Our vocational learners usually focus on one skills subject a year, with course managers identifying the most relevant for their work sector. For example, our BTEC National Diploma Public Services learners work towards the ICT functional skills qualification in the first year and the English functional skills qualification the next.

All learners on the pilot had a one-hour functional skills lesson each week, during which they tackled task-based scenarios based on their vocational sector and more generic scenarios. Although in practice tasks often involved more than one functional skill (an English task will often incorporate the use of ICT, for example), we didn't make these links explicit to learners to start with.

Generally staff were positive about the introduction of functional skills, although they had to invest a lot of time in developing task-based scenarios. Whereas with key skills we tended to focus on one aspect of a skill at a time (for example, discussion in communication), now everything needs to be integrated.

Most staff have welcomed both this and the new approach to final assessment, although there are some concerns about managing the assessment process. We're planning to do assessment in batches so we have the capacity to support each other.

Good communication is vital. Our functional skills team meets regularly to share problems, practice, resources and new developments. Most of our learners are enthusiastic about the new challenge offered by functional skills, although we need to address a feeling expressed by some that the teaching materials can be patronising.

However, overall I think that young people will respond well to the greater freedom the functional skills approach gives them to take on big tasks that they can see are relevant to life and work.

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