Knowledge vs ‘soft skills’ – which should take precedence?

This article in the TES caught my interest this morning. Given that employers seem to value knowledge (pay is higher for maths grads, for example), the author expected parents to be similarly inclined because it is human nature to want your children to be able to support themselves and do well in life. But no, apparently parents place more value on ‘soft skills’ such as ‘interpersonal communication’ over knowledge and they’d rather schools focused on the former at the expense of the latter.

I wasn’t really sure what the author was trying to conclude other than the fact that we need to listen to parents more. The author also pitted the lovely ’rounded education’ school where children don’t even know it’s SATs week against the kind of school that is only driven by data and test scores. Of course, we all want to be delivering that rounded education for children and I’m a big believer in winning the hearts and minds of children and the wider community – it should be like everyone’s in one big team – but when I see or hear about all these wonderful schools where everyone’s going on lovely trips, dressing up, taking whole days off just to sing and do drama, they tend to have overwhelmingly middle class intakes.

In contrast, we have schools in disadvantaged areas where the children arrive at the door with nothing, not even the basics of communication and the desperate race begins to get these children up to the same level of academic achievement as their wealthier peers in other parts of the country. To somehow squeeze more ‘learning’, be it academic or social, into the same number of hours per day as other schools where children arrive with a bank of social skills and knowledge that can be built upon is mathematically impossible, so there must always be agonising compromise. As a leader, do I direct precious resources away from reading instruction? No. I must be evidence-informed in my decisions and think about what will help these children most as they grow up, but there will always be the great clamouring of needs that these children arrive with, many related to said ‘soft skills’ that parents allegedly want us to focus on instead of teaching knowledge.

I’m in a different mindset to the author (and therefore, probably, most people). Why? Parents want their children to be happy and have lots of friends, you know, grow up to be nice people and they think that this is the school’s main remit. Who or what gave them that impression? True, there are aspects of character education that can only be developed in school – the ability to put up with a little hardship, not moan about it and see the value of deferred gratification that comes from cross country runs and exam seasons, for example. Social skills? Yes, we can help with this because we have clear rules, routines, high expectations with regards to manners, deference to authority, decorum in public spaces that can then be transferred to ‘real life’ when the child leaves education, but the kind of ‘soft skills’ that I think parents would like schools to focus on are actually the ‘soft skills’ that can only be developed via what is commonly known as ‘parenting’. Sorry guys.

I think that, over the years, the whole concept of parenting has warped and many parents now do not know that the simple of concept of modelling good conversation, etiquette and explicit teaching of manners is best done at the dinner table and through rules, routines and habits put in place at home. Even if we mandated that all teachers and teaching assistants sat with children at lunch to try to do the same, as well as have many, many assemblies, circle times and PSHE lessons to teach ‘soft skills’, it just wouldn’t be as effective. If it were, then we wouldn’t see such variation in personality, soft skills and ability to make friends that we see in schools today where, roughly speaking, children receive the same education.

So, let’s do what we can to provide a rounded education that includes plenty of teaching of knowledge as well as providing opportunities for character development. At the same time, we need to let parents know that they have the most power to give their children the ‘soft skills’ they value so much.

Who’s with me?



2 thoughts on “Knowledge vs ‘soft skills’ – which should take precedence?

  1. So, a survey of tech-world wants people-skills. Wish I’d know it was in the pipeline because I may well have bet my house on that outcome.

    They are asking schools to fix a largely inviolable rule of human nature. On average, really good techs are really good with things and not so good with people. There may be some who pull-off both at the same time, but they’re more the exception than the rule.

    Not being able to put many of their good techs in front of customers without some quick-footed chaperones to translate or dig them out of trouble has long been a problem for the ‘people people’ doing much of the management side of tech world, so of course they’re going to ask schools to fix it.

    The serious techs also know it’s their big weakness e.g. networking skills often trump tech brilliance when climbing a career ladder, so I expect lot of them to want their kids to be free of that problem. These are also *the people* for whom ‘just Google it’ works, because pretty much every technical reference they consult (there are metaphorical mountain ranges of them) lives in www pages, so I suspect they’re much less inclined than many to remember and respect what childhood learning did for them.

    Education is also a serious market for tech. If they’re not selling it to you, they’re giving it away in the hope that they’ll capture kids’ souls i.e. when the kids eventually get grown-up jobs they’ll want to use the same products and be willing to pay for them. Trads of course, aren’t especially enamoured by tech. Neither are a lot of progressives, but put progressives are more reachable so they’ve gone full in with the buzz-words in an attempt to get their custom. Because of that I suspect a lot of folk in tech-world have only ever met the OTT progressive digital flyers etc. and likely thinks that is the entirety of educational ideology.

    I wouldn’t take that survey to heart. Schools might be able to nudge future tech’s soft skills into slightly better shape but this is almost literally a brain ‘wiring’ problem. Assuming future genomic engineers working on Human v27.0 attempt it, then I doubt they’ll be able to significantly increase soft skills without decreasing tech skills.


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