The key to skills

It is education, not skills training, that prepares young people for work.

Alex Standish

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Topics Politics

UK education secretary David Blunkett announced in January 2001 that he planned to spend £38million over the next three years, expanding vocational education in schools for all children over 14.

Vocational GCSEs in subjects such as engineering would, he said, be ‘directly relevant’ for those progressing from school into an apprenticeship at 16, providing a ‘sound foundation for the further development of their skills, knowledge and understanding in the apprenticeship programmes’ (1). Blunkett also wants to move away from the current situation where most students opt either for a vocational or an academic pathway, and enable all students to benefit from skills learned through vocational training.

Blunkett’s plans to give secondary education an increasingly vocational bent sit easily with a broader consensus within the education world: that education should prepare school-leavers better for the ‘New Economy’. What relevance, goes the argument, does the traditional curriculum of Shakespeare, Medieval Britain or algebra have to do with the demands of modern industry? Is it not time to bury the likes of history and geography and to teach skills that will actually be used when students start work?

The days when educationalists fought to keep the goals of education separate from those of the world of work are long gone. In the early 1990s, General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) were introduced into schools as a more relevant alternative to students who were not ‘suited’ to an academic curriculum. Now vocational skills or ‘key skills’ are being advocated for all students.

In Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds Ron Dearing stated that all schools, colleges and training bodies providing publicly funded education and training for 16- to 19-year olds ‘should provide opportunities for all young people to develop their key skills and to have them assessed and recognised’ (2). The Dearing Committee created a list of key skills based on comments both from people in higher education, and from employers. Using these recommendations, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) developed a specification for key skills qualifications, which was piloted in 1997 (3). In September 2000 the first pupils began courses in key skills.

According to the QCA, the importance of key skills is that they:

– ‘Help you to focus on what you are learning’

– ‘Help you to be flexible in whatever work you do’

– ‘Help you to organise yourself, overcome problems and get on with other people’.

The QCA specifications for key skills include six clearly defined areas where qualifications can be obtained: communication, application of number, information technology, working with others, improving your own learning and problem solving. The first three are considered the core areas and the latter three wider skills. The content of key skills courses involves lessons that provide opportunities for students to work on specific objectives. They produce work towards a portfolio, which exists as evidence to be internally assessed and externally moderated. Exams are taken at the end of the year.

One student studying A-levels at King Alfred School in Wantage explained that she does not have to attend key skills lessons because she covers the work in her other classes. She cannot be alone in this. Is it really necessary that an A-level student studying English and information technology, and who has passed GCSE maths, should have to sit separate exams in key skills in these areas?

Many of the specifications of key skills are vague, and cover a vast range of possible activities at differing levels of complexity. Level one communication requires pupils to ‘take part in discussions about straightforward subjects’. Are most children not capable of this before they even start school? For application of level two, pupils must ‘carry out calculations involving two or more numbers of any size, including the use of formulae, and check your methods and the levels of accuracy’. A simple calculation of the area of a square would meet this criteria, as would calculating the forces acting on a particle on an inclined plane – but the understanding required to do them is vastly different.

It is dubious whether skills cannot be taught and assessed at all in the simplistic manner suggested by the key skills specifications. Breaking complex skills down into differentiated measurable targets does not do justice to the range of skills involved. Richard Pring observes that:

‘Communication (and similarly problem solving) is not that kind of thing. It involves skills certainly – a massive number of them which cannot be reduced to a small number of statements – but involves much more than that, namely sensitivity to different contexts (a good communicator at Old Trafford may be pretty poor at the Anthenaeum), empathy with different sorts of people, an extensive vocabulary representing conceptual complexity, a grasp of different uses of language, and so on.’ (4)

Yet the key skills specifications reduce the ‘massive number’ of skills involved in communication (reading, writing and oral use of language) to 15 statements covering five vastly different levels.

Key skills are now featuring as part of new GCSE syllabi from September 2001. Key skills will be ‘signposted’ in other subjects, with the intention that this will ‘help practitioners identify where meaningful opportunities for key skills development could arise’. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) also notes that some of the traditional academic qualifications are equivalent to the new key skills qualifications, and suggest that these can act as proxies.

For English language, English literature, maths, and information technology, an A-level or AS-level grade A to E is equivalent to key skill level three in communication, application of number and information technology respectively. Likewise, GCSE grades A* to C are equivalent to key skills level two in these subjects and GCSE grades D to G are equivalent to key skills level one. What this suggests, of course, is that existing courses and qualifications already develop at least the core key skills. So why is it necessary to invent new ones?

Key skills specifications, like many other curriculum plans in schools and colleges today, have adopted a competence-based approach to learning. The competence-based model was originally designed for special needs students who could not achieve the success of others, and enables progress to be documented in small steps – the pace at which the student is able to learn.

It is understandable why the National Council for Vocational Qualifications might want to use a competence-based approach for vocational qualifications, which require considerable assessment of skills. For a specific job, such as a car mechanic, a list of skills or tasks in which a trainee needs to be competent in order to do the job can easily be created. But there is a difference between knowing how to do something and knowing why you are doing it. As one electrician commented, ‘Many of these new trainees with NVQs [National Vocational Qualifications] can do all the basic jobs, but when something goes wrong, they do not have the theoretical know-how to put it right’.

This gives an indication of how inappropriate the competence-based model can be in education. Take, for example, the objective ‘knows how to use decimals to two decimal places’. The activity might involve some addition using pounds and pence, something with which most pupils are very familiar. The outcome might be that they successfully complete the sum. The teacher would then tick the appropriate box in that student’s National Record of Achievement. But what happens if, the next day, the same student is asked to work with decimals to two places to record times in a 100-metre race on a stopwatch?

Both tasks involve different levels of understanding, and people do not learn in a uniform linear fashion. It is possible to set learning objectives and plan activities that the teacher hopes will achieve the objective, but the outcome will be different for different students. Yet often, in teaching key skills, teachers seem to be expected to ignore all this.

The theory underpinning the concept of ‘key skills’ assumes that these are generic transferable skills. It is assumed that if students can learn to work with each other, they will be able to do likewise in a work environment. But working with your friends on a piece of project work is just not the same as working with a group of colleagues, in a completely different environment. As Jerry Wellington says of problem-solving skills: ‘There is little evidence that there is a “universal problem-solving ability”, nor is there evidence that problem-solving transfers from one subject to another, let alone from school or college to the workplace’ (5). Jean Lave has argued that, ‘When we investigate learning transfer across situations, the results are consistently negative’. (6)

This may not be true for all key skills. Comprehension of statistical analysis, for example, will obviously transfer to many situations in which numbers are involved. But it is worth asking whether transferability of skills has been considered thoroughly enough by those who advocate the teaching of key skills in order to prepare young people for work.

Kimberly Seltzer and Tom Bentley advocate the need for school curricula to change in order to meet the demands of a changing economy, but they are critical of the Key Skills Specifications (7). While they agree with the dynamic behind the specifications, and attack the National Curriculum for being content-based at the expense of ‘depth of understanding and breath of application’, Seltzer and Bentley criticise QCA for relying too heavily on standardisation and decontextualised forms of assessment. They point out that, ‘Evidence from employers suggests that conventional certificates in soft skills such as communication are largely irrelevant to their needs’.

As a solution, Seltzer and Bentley argue for schools to promote ‘forms of learning that develop creative abilities’. By this they do not mean creativity in the traditional sense of artistic or imaginative ability – rather that creative learners must have four key qualities: the ability to identify new problems for themselves; the ability to transfer knowledge from one context to another; belief in learning as an incremental process; and the capacity to focus attention in the pursuit of goals.

Schools, argue Seltzer and Bentley, should develop creative qualities by creating an environment which promotes trust, freedom of action, variation of context, the right balance between skills and challenges, interactive exchange of knowledge and ideas, and real world outcomes. To do this they recommend the National Curriculum to be cut by half and replaced by a curriculum based on practice rather than content. Students would be expected to undertake projects and placements to identify and solve problems, individually and in groups, some of which would be school-based, others in the community. They would focus on ‘doing’ as much as they would on thinking and knowing. They would do longer periods of work experience, and by the time they reached degree level should be spending half of their time in employment.

The focus of Seltzer and Bentley’s argument is the need for students to learn how to find practical solutions to practical problems. But this is something that everybody surely does in the course of their daily lives – do they really need to learn it? Project work is easier than learning knowledge because it does not necessarily require understanding. It has its place in education – but it could not substitute for the more frowned-upon, traditional knowledge work.

The concept of key skills, then, has a lot of problems. But the bigger issue – and the one that has been discussed nowhere near enough – is why it is assumed that young people actually need vocational training or key skills to enter the workplace. The generations before them have, after all, survived their first years of employment without key skills. What’s so different about today’s young people?

A comparison of post-16 students taking GNVQ or A-level courses from two comprehensive schools, one in south London the other in Surrey, reveals that 85 to 90 percent of students opt for A-levels. Of these, over 70 percent go on to higher education. Of those taking GNVQs some went into employment and some into further or higher education. Given that historically graduate starting-salaries are significantly above those of non-graduates, the majority of students still choose the A-level route to obtain better-paid, higher-status jobs.

Several sources note that employers prefer A-level pupils to those with GNVQs. Jerry Wellington states that ‘qualifications in academic subjects, not vocational subjects, are more strongly correlated with success in gaining employment’ (8). Anthony Edwards suggests that this is because A-levels are a proxy measure of ‘promising applicants’ ambition, self-reliance, capacity for hard work and capacity for learning’ (9).

A comparison of the content and lessons of GNVQ and A-level courses seems to confirm employers’ suspicions that A-level pupils are better equipped for the world of work than their vocationally qualified peers. Meagher used classroom observation in 12 Tyneside schools and four colleges, over a period of 200 hours, to document the type of activities and the quantity and quality of work in various A-level and GNVQ classes (10). For each of these criteria the A-level classes were more demanding than GNVQ classes. More work was required, the lessons were more intense, the course was harder to pass and the level of work was harder.

It is also questionable how much key skills benefits young people when it comes to the specifics of their jobs. Jerry Wellington suggests that ’employers recruiting young people do not value specific vocational skills very highly’ (11). Much of the research points to the importance employers attach to personal qualities and basic literacy and numeracy, rather than vocational or pre-vocational skills. A Welsh survey into employers’ needs in 1987 listed the qualities that employers value in employees (12). The top eight are all personal qualities, such as reliability and trustworthiness, punctuality, enthusiasm and clean and tidy appearance. ‘Ability to work as a member of a team’ is the only one of these that is included in the above key skills. ‘Some qualifications related to the job’ is number 14 on the list.

A survey by the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (US Department of Labor) in 1991 listed workplace ‘know-hows’ (13). This included a range of competencies, management of resources, interpersonal skills, information handling, understanding systems and knowing how to use technology; and foundation skills, literacy and numeracy, thinking skills and personal qualities of responsibility and self-management. These are no doubt important skills to have in a job. But are they not usually developed during the course of ‘normal’ schooling?

School systems require students to be punctual, maintain deadlines, apply themselves to achieving specific goals, be personally organised, be well presented, develop literacy and numeracy, become computer literate and even be creative at times. This is why employers will continue to favour A-level students over GNVQ, because they have demonstrated the ability to apply themselves to the demands of a relatively rigorous course. It is also why employers have traditionally held recruitment fairs at universities in an attempt to lure the best graduates. Wellington notes that ‘an AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Service) survey in 1985 reported that employers expect graduates to learn quickly; think constructively; work unsupervised; be literate and numerate; have detailed knowledge of a specific subject’ (14).

Educated people are usually effective in most jobs, because of the ‘training’ they have gone through in the process of education. Once a certain academic level has been reached, the demands of most jobs are easily acquired. This is the best preparation for life and for work that the education system can and should give.

Because of the inherent problems within the concept of ‘key skills’, the attempts to tailor a curriculum towards the requirements of work, key skills and abstract notions of creativity will fail to meet their stated objectives. Moreover, the narrow emphasis on schools is likely to make young people less prepared for work than they would have been as a result of traditional liberal education. One of Seltzer and Bentley’s model institutions is Boston Citizen School, where young people produce newspapers, web pages, theatre productions and various other such creative projects. But while this sounds like fun, is this the only thing education should offer children – a glorified youth club, with tickable skills that you can put on your CV?

For the sake of both education and ’employability’, teachers should carry on teaching. Training for a specific job should be left to those who are best equipped to do it – the employers.

Alex Standish was formerly a teacher in the south east of England, and is currently carrying out postgraduate research at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

Read on:
Computers and teachers: a lesson by Joanna Williams
(1) The Times, January 2001 – ‘Vocational exams for over-14s planned’, by Sandra Laville
(2) Dearing, R (1996), Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds, Middlesex: SCA
(3) Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2000), Key Skills Specifications, www.qca.co.uk
(4) Pring, R (1995), Closing the Gap: Liberal Education and Vocational Preparation, London: Hodder and Stoughton
(5) Wellington, J (eds) (1993), The Work Related Curriculum, London: Kogan Page
(6) Lave, J (1988), Cognition in Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
(7) Seltzer, K and Bentley, T (1999), The Creative Age: Knowledge and Skills of the New Economy, London: Demos
(8) Wellington, J (eds) (1993), The Work Related Curriculum, London: Kogan Page
(9) Edwards, T et al (1997), Separate But Equal? A Levels and GNVQs, London: Routledge
(10) Meagher, (1997) in Edwards, T et al, (1997) Separate But Equal? A Levels and GNVQs
(11) Wellington, J (eds) (1993), The Work Related Curriculum, London: Kogan Page
(12) Recruitment and Training Research Unit, The Polytechnic of Wales (1987) ‘Welsh survey into employers’ needs’ in Wellington, J (eds) The Work Related Curriculum, London: Kogan Page
(13) US Department of Labor (1991) ‘Secretary’s commission on achieving necessary skills’ in Wellington, J (eds), The Work Related Curriculum, London: Kogan Page
(14) Wellington, J (eds) (1993), The Work Related Curriculum, London: Kogan Page

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