Softly softly

Much is written about emotional intelligence, particularly in the world of business. The ability to recognize emotions in ourselves and other people, to identify and understand different feelings and to use emotions ‘intelligently’ to inform our thinking and behaviour are highly-prized skills. In the same family lie ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork, communication and timekeeping, and these are being championed by ex-Dragon’s Den entrepreneur James Caan as skills that, when not present, productivity suffers.

The powers that be at McDonalds agree with him, and between them they have set up a campaign for soft skills to be a focus for learning. Wise words. But why has it taken a TV businessman and a fast food chain to ‘pioneer’ this concept? Why, in the 21st Century, are these skills not taught in all schools and colleges as part of the compulsory curriculum? Soft skills, emotional intelligence, ‘character education’ – call them what you will – it doesn’t matter how much the Government promises that they are important, they simply are not treated as such. In a world where formal education is prized above the ability to communicate effectively, ‘soft skills’ don’t stand a chance.

According to James Caan, formal education is important, but soft skills create ‘the balance in the working environment that leads to better productivity.’ And according to McDonalds, ‘soft skills will boost an individual’s salary by 15% over their lifetime,’ with the value of soft skills to the UK economy at around £88 billion, growing potentially to more than £127 billion by 2025. The main thrust of the campaign is to change the way people perceive soft skills and to come up with ideas for how to improve them in the UK.

Again … wise words, but highly frustrating. Frustrating because there is something called PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) that is offered as a subject in schools but at best is timetabled for the smallest portion of the week. There are Personal Development and Employability courses on offer, but these are seen as ‘vocational’ and as such are not for the brighter young people. Eminent educationalists such as Sir Ken Robinson have been vocalising this issue, extolling the importance of vocational subjects – dance, drama, creativity and life skills – for the development of confidence, communication skills, self-esteem, teamwork, engagement, in fact, just those skills that James Caan has been talking about … but who is listening? Top business people such as Richard Branson have talked about the importance of confidence and self-esteem for years … but who listens? Instead, the perceived wisdom is that, in order to make this country great again, all young people must have at least five A* – C grade GCSEs, including core subjects such as English, Maths and Science, and that ‘knowledge’ is all. The ability to take in a whole heap of facts and regurgitate them in an exam is valued more highly than analysing those facts and processing their importance. There is talk in the current rhetoric of ‘grit and resilience’ needed by young people to function in the outside world, but nothing has been done to make PSHE a core subject.

Until this changes, young people may well leave school being able to solve a simultaneous equation, write an essay about the Weimar Republik and give a half-decent account of existentialism, but will they know how to say no to the drugs offered to them at that party? Or to the guy who is trying to get them to have unprotected sex? Will they understand the world of work and what being employed actually means? Will they know how to pay a regular bill? Will they know how to interact with others over a task? Probably not.

Campaigns are great, but this one is simply putting an age-old argument into other words, and as long as Governmental priorities stay as they have been for far too long, there is little chance that these words will ever make a difference.

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