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Time to close the soft skills gap around the world

Catherine Whitaker

Catherine Whitaker is CEO and head of learning at EtonX, the leading online provider of 21st century skills for international schools. Catherine is heading the company’s mission to provide students with soft skills to enhance their university studies and broaden their long-term career opportunities. Catherine is a career innovator in digital content and online learning, having been chief operating officer of social learning platform Knowledge Transmission, and holding business development and editorial posts at HarperCollins and Macmillan.

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Despite sustained investment in global education systems over the years, there’s a persistent gap in our children’s learning. 21st century skills - such as problem-solving, critical thinking and appreciating cultural differences - are lacking among the university students of tomorrow.

Instead of being a well-understood but under-realised adjunct to the curriculum, these skills can now be formally taught and round out children’s schooling - and boost their long-term prospects.

Researchers have regularly sounded the alarm over the soft skills gap. In surveys, employers in countries around the world grumble that “Employers grumble that few graduates are truly work-ready.”few graduates are truly work-ready. The wider issue is arguably more acute: in a 2016 study, only half of big company HR directors worldwide felt that their plans could cope with the labour market changes they were seeing. Bosses and policy wonks alike are worried.

You could argue that adding soft skills lessons to schools will simply lead to hard-pressed teachers getting the blame (once again), this time for not achieving the miracle of great exam results and rounded individual students, when their teaching time is already spoken for. But this lack of fully-developed 21st century skills instruction could be costing students – and by extension, whole societies – in hard terms.

A World Economic Forum analysis of global academic attainment data suggests that students equipped with social and emotional skills score on average 11 percentile points higher than those without. Students attending schools that keep soft skills detached from core academic results could be hugely disadvantaged, at examination time and in the job stakes, over time.

I believe these two ‘friendly acquaintances’ of core subjects and soft skills could be more closely interwoven, without disrupting curricula, to deliver a more enriching and career-enhancing secondary school experience.

Just as Facebook and Amazon are rewriting the way we all buy, learn and play, so schools could be offering the latest soft skills instruction as exciting, high-quality, online digital content.

That’s why, over the next few months, EtonX is launching the first ‘next-generation’ soft skills courses, including Making An Impact, Verbal Communications and Public Speaking, for Secondary schools abroad. Delivered by expert tutors in attractive, virtual classrooms over seven weeks, and blending friendly class interaction and self-study, students can quickly gain real-world skills to ace those entrance demands - and navigate those first steps in the working world.

Because our courses are accessible online, anywhere, they can be woven into school curricula, or taken up directly by students seeking extra tuition. In a few weeks, ambitious students can acquire years’ worth of know-how to help them get ahead in the real world. Soft skills can be taught in the same way as academic subjects. And by doing so, we will be closing that lasting gap in 21st century education.

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