Softies of the World unite! The importance of soft subjects

Kate Nash

Kate Nash acquired a Drama PGCE at the Central School of Speech and Drama, having first completed a law degree, and spent her early teaching career cutting her teeth in state schools across Essex as well as a Quaker Boarding school. She has worked at Kingswood School in Bath for ten years where she has been head of department since 2012. She lives in a state of perpetual chaos with her husband, a murderous cat and three children. You can follow her dramatic rantings on Twitter.

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Image credit: flickr // ccarlstead Image credit: flickr // ccarlstead

Anyone who comes into contact with young people regularly will be well accustomed to their subversive use of the English language. To them, ‘sick’ no longer means feeling ill; ‘sound’ has nothing to do with what you can hear; to be ‘wicked’ does not mean you are bad. Then there is the derogatory use of the word ‘gay’ in the ‘banter’ they so like to indulge in. This is, of course, not a recent phenomenon. Since the beginning of time each new generation has developed its own use of slang to promote and develop its own individual identity.

"Soft Skills are those attributes which are widely acknowledged to be desirable by employers – any quick Google search will bring up a wealth of different sites listing these essential skills"

‘Soft’ is one work which I long to reclaim from its negative and seditious connotations. As an avid ‘Beano’ reader during childhood, I loved reading the escapades of Dennis the Menace, Gnasher and their poor victim Walter the Softie. Walter was considered ‘soft’ because he was weak – both physically and mentally. He cowered in the face of adventure and crumbled when faced with adversity. You can be ‘soft in the head’, have a ‘soft spot’, be ‘soft-soaped’ or a ‘soft touch’. Programmes like ‘The Apprentice’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘I’m a Celebrity’ would also seem to disparage those who are too ‘soft’. This is a ‘dog-eat-dog world’. To survive you must be ‘hard’ - made of ‘tougher’ stuff.

But among the negative meanings of the word soft which can be found in the Oxford Dictionary there are other more positive definitions. Soft can also mean ‘sympathetic’, ‘compassionate’, ‘prepared to compromise’. Soft Skills are those attributes which are widely acknowledged to be desirable by employers – any quick Google search will bring up a wealth of different sites listing these essential skills. In an article for the BBC on 30th July 2014, Rob Wall, CBI head of education and employment policy, was quoted as saying: "The UK is facing a growing skills gap, so we must have an education system that better prepares young people for the world of work.

"That means not only do they need higher skills, but the character, determination and ability to communicate effectively and help forge successful careers."

He added that the CBI had found 89% of British firms regarded attitudes to work and character as the most important factor when recruiting graduates. In another part of the same article, Stuart Pedley-Smith, head of learning in the UK at Kaplan acknowledged that a common mantra in with industry was ‘recruit for attitude, train for skill’.

Employers, it would seem, are happy to train graduates to master the specific technical skills within their job field, but what employer wouldn’t want a prospective employee who is able to communicate, make decisions and solve problems, be flexible, committed, meet deadlines, be able to work in a team or even lead one, work under pressure and accept responsibility?

The bigger question then is not why do we view the word ‘soft’ as a bad thing, but why do some seem intent on dismissing the very subjects which directly teach these ‘soft skills’ which set candidates apart and give them the edge on their rivals? As a Drama and Theatre Studies teacher of some fifteen years standing, I have seen many of my students successfully negotiate interviews with ‘top’ universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – and I have lost count of the number of times my colleagues in other departments have expressed surprise that they should have got in ‘even with Drama A Level’. No Theatre Studies teacher would be surprised – we know that our students can present themselves well, are personable and at ease talking about themselves and – most importantly – can give countless examples of when they have used their ‘soft skills’.

"Say it loud and often that there is no job in the world that does not require them to be able to do what you are teaching them."

But still, every year at open evenings I have to defend my ‘soft subject’ to parents whose child understands the value of the work they will do far more than they might. The parents, you see, have read the papers, they have seen the hype and many do not question it. They are surprised when I explain the nature of the syllabus – the written analysis; the development of individual, creative concepts; the research that will be undertaken; the responsibility they will have; the opportunities for developing those essential transferable skills.

George Osborne, speaking in 2009, said ‘I still don’t think policy makers have woken up to the economic importance of the cultural industries’. Creative industries, we are told, are one of the few booming areas of the economy. But yet my subject and others like it are under pressure - squeezed by an ever-narrowing curriculum, shrinking budgets and regular threats of elimination. I am luckier than most, working as I do in a private school where support is given unquestionably by my senior management. I would struggle now to return to a state sector that cannot support the Arts in Schools beyond basic provision. I hear state school colleagues tell of diminishing numbers, pupils warned off doing the subject in favour of ‘harder’, more ‘academic’ ones, parents frightened of what they have read or heard.

Changing people’s perceptions is never easy – it takes time and patience. We must also accept that some people will never value the things we hold in such high esteem. Ken Robinson, in a TED talk on creativity, once spoke about how different types of people live in different parts of their bodies. Some people, he said, live in their heads and only see their bodies as a way of transporting their heads to meetings! But perceptions can be changed, and we can help people to understand that teaching Arts subjects is important.

Firstly – debunk the myths. Use every opportunity to let pupils and parents (and colleagues too, if need be) know what we do. Display a list of transferable skills in your classroom and at open events – even take a list with you to parent’s evenings. I find a nicely-designed poster in front of me on the desk listing the words ‘Creativity, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, focus, non-verbal communication, receiving constructive feedback, collaboration, dedication and accountability’ goes a long way to helping even the most sceptical parent grudgingly admit that those skills are useful for their offspring! In displays I also include lists of what pupils have gone to study – and where. Facts speak louder than opinions. Offer to do assemblies on soft skills to spread the word even further.

Secondly create a support network for yourself – Twitter and Facebook are invaluable in helping teachers ‘meet’ like-minded individuals. From there I’ve picked up vital pieces of information – including the percentage of law graduates who studied Theatre Studies at A Level (very high!) along with other useful titbits to counter the ‘what’s point of it’ argument.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we must practise what we preach. Structure your syllabus around those Transferable Skills – know why each classroom activity is important to the pupil as a person – not just as a potential actor. Link what you are doing to other areas of the curriculum. Say it loud and often that there is no job in the world that does not require them to be able to do what you are teaching them. Make sure that anything that is presented is of the highest standard – don’t settle for second best and never, ever make excuses that ‘they are just children’. Finally, because it is highly likely that you do all of the above anyway, don’t ever give up the fight!

My subject is ‘hard’ – difficult, if you will. Pupils who find it ‘easy’, when questioned, do so because they enjoy it and are prepared to work hard to succeed in it. But it is also ‘soft’ and I make no excuses for that. My students will develop ‘soft skills’, they learn to stand out from the crowd and I am extremely gratified by that. But we are doing thousands of others a disservice by not encouraging them to access these subjects, by narrowing their curriculum and narrowing their outlook. So, it is time to reclaim the word ‘soft’ – to appreciate it for what it means and to be proud that we help children make their way in this world as well rounded human beings able to deal with life and all its diversity and challenges. I am a softie and I am proud - and I defy any Dennis the Menace to bully me into submission!

Do you teach a ‘soft’ subject? Share your thoughts below.

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