Essential Skills for a 21st century Wales

Bethan Jeffers and Eleanor Collard put forward a case for developing Wales' transferable essential skills.

Bethan Jeffers and Eleanor Collard outline the Welsh curriculum reforms, making a case for developing the country’s transferable essential skills.

How can Wales develop a skilled future workforce when the jobs they’ll do may not yet exist? How can the school timetable of 2023 equip young people with the knowledge they’ll need in 2040? And how can the country satisfy employers’ demand for agile future-fit workers?

There’s reason to be equally confident and cautious about what’s on the horizon for the Welsh and UK labour market. 

Many are starting to experience the effects of an unrelenting march of technological change as we move into Industry 4.0. Digitalisation and automation, accelerated by the events of the past two years, are forecast to render up to a third of Welsh jobs obsolete or displaced by 2030. Wales’s top 10 private employers operate in sectors with jobs at the highest risk of being lost to automation, and its labour-intensive manufacturing sector (in which an estimated 145,000 adults work) faces the most disruption. 

Essential skills, including problem solving, communication, interpersonal, and self-management, are distinct from the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, digital skills, and occupationally specific technical skills.

It’s tempting to conclude that for Wales to adapt to such a changeable environment – and to thrive in it – it must concentrate its efforts on reskilling workers with digital and technical skills. But this is only a part of the solution. We need people who have learned how to learn, and who can take it in their stride when the next new technology comes down the pipeline. In other words, we need people with high levels of transferable essential skills. 

Essential skills, including problem solving, communication, interpersonal, and self-management, are distinct from the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, digital skills, and occupationally specific technical skills. They’re a prerequisite to first learning and then applying evolving technical skills and knowledge, and are needed by almost everyone to do almost every job. No surprise then that they’re so much in demand by employers, who desire ‘work ready’ candidates

The Welsh Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has already recognised the importance of these skills by introducing prescient reforms to curriculum guidance (Cwricwlwm i Gymru). At the centre of the reforms is the notion of adaptability: the DfES pledges to foster well-rounded, resilient workers of the future by equipping students with the cross-disciplinary skills to navigate “the demands of working in uncertain situations” within “an ever-changing world” – a knowing nod towards the fact that many students today will work in jobs that don’t currently exist. 

It’s a commendable, pioneering approach. Wales will have the first education curriculum in the UK to place such an explicit emphasis on essential skills. 

This could be an inflection point: as the Welsh Government seeks to consolidate a “Stronger, Fairer, Greener Wales” and marks its second term piloting the holistic curriculum across Welsh schools, now is the time to deliver a step-change in teaching essential skills for all.

A future-facing curriculum: bringing it to life

To claim that teaching these skills will boost life outcomes, and therefore directly benefit the Welsh economy and modern labour market, isn’t just speculation. Longitudinal research by the Skills Builder Partnership, a non-profit social enterprise that advocates for essential skills for all, shows that learners who build these skills early on attain higher grades in literacy and numeracy than their peers of the same background. Other Skills Builder research shows that they’re 52% more likely to be in education or employment, follow a higher earnings trajectory improving salaries by up to £5,900 per year, and ultimately have higher levels of life satisfaction. 

So what does this really look like on the ground? Skills Builder has worked with teachers and students across Wales to implement a cohesive approach and robust framework for building essential skills that complements the new curriculum. 

“Using a framework for essential skills helped us to align with the new curriculum for Wales,” Rachel Collins, Additional Learning Needs Coordinator at Bedwas Infant School in Caerphilly, told Skills Builder. 

“Pupils have access to a range of learning experiences: we’ve run sessions and after-school clubs that link to these skills, and organise school trips that focus on putting essential skills into practice. Pupils have seen measurable gains in their confidence, academic progress, and ability to respond to new situations.”

Other schools commented that using a shared language around essential skills is as important as building them. 

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.

“Having a common language has been crucial in ensuring teachers are explicit in their instructions and objectives. Pupils clearly understand how to develop their essential skills,” says Kathryn Gwyn, Deputy Headteacher of Hawthorn High School in Pontypridd. 

“We’re at an opportune moment to demonstrate, develop and assess these wider skills. The key to success for us will be to ensure the programme and its principles aren’t seen as a bolt on to lessons, but rather as an intrinsic element of our teaching – especially as we move towards the formal launch of the new DfES curriculum in our school.”

The experiences of these schools in building essential skills go to show that prescriptive knowledge-based curriculums, assessed via once-in-a-lifetime exams and narrow metrics for success, cannot prepare the students of today to become the workforce of tomorrow. With the support of the new holistic curriculum, teaching must clearly give emphasis to the skills that enable students to progress agilely between jobs, careers, and changing situations.  

Linking the classroom to the workplace – and beyond 

What’s not been mentioned so far, however, is that training in these skills needs to be lifelong. It needs to transcend formal education and receive the sustained backing of Welsh employers for the learning to really stick. Educators and employers alike must create and deploy the same simple language around these skills, alongside robust, transparent approaches to measure progress. 

In concrete terms, this means that the phraseology contained within the DfES’s curriculum guidance should be reflected by recruitment and learning & development. How often do we hear phrases bandied around such as “good communicator” and “team player”? It’s time for recruiters and managers to demystify and define those familiar, ambiguous collocations. 

Compelling policy change can strengthen the link between school and work.

It also means that if students are to transition into a career with ease, then how they’re taught essential skills at school must resonate with how these skills are then developed and assessed at work. Employers will feel the benefit too: investing in individuals’ transferable skills before and after they enter the organisation helps employers plug skill gaps, increase diversity, and boost productivity. 

Compelling policy change can strengthen the link between school and work. As the Careers and the World of Work framework is restructured to reflect Wales’s new curriculum, policymakers can embed into it a standard pedagogy for essential skills. Furthermore, essential skills teaching could be included within the Department for Work & Pensions’ Restart Scheme (currently delivered by Serco ESE in Wales) to guide jobseekers into work. 

Regional Skills Partnerships can be real proponents for essential skills by identifying regional gaps, deploying bespoke skills strategies and funding to address those gaps, and influencing local education institutions and employers to rally around a shared skills lexicon. 

It’s an ambitious, yet necessary, mandate – and it’s one that will require a wholesale approach, with unanimous cross-sector and cross-party buy in. 

Essential skills for the future 

Looking ahead, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Automation and artificial intelligence will spur employment in fast-developing areas such as machine learning, data analysis, and software. Many existing jobs won’t disappear altogether, but instead transform and evolve to coexist with automated tech.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of progress. Watch what’s happening with the numerous semiconductor firms springing up along the Valleys, which have been a key driver of apprentice recruitment and training. The Welsh cybersecurity sector is similarly mushrooming, contributing more than £8 billion a year to the economy. At the same time, the demand for green skills in Wales’s net zero transition is generating scores of new jobs and specialisms – a trend which is set to continue apace. Underlying all this are regeneration projects to boost employment and upskilling, headed by the likes of the Valleys Taskforce, that attract investment for local businesses. It all makes for fertile soil in which to grow employment and the Welsh economy.  All that’s needed are the tools to cultivate a future-proofed workforce with the skills to make the most of Industry 4.0.  

In the absence of a cure-all to the challenges we face, there are nonetheless several emergent principles. Collaboration – between sectors, and between local and national actors – is key. So too must there be a tacit willingness and flexibility to test novel ideas as circumstances arise. As luck would have it, these are the very principles that can be fostered by a well-rounded education in essential skills – and the new curriculum marks a promising start.

If we embrace these ideas of openness and collective action, we can effect a system change that truly equips Wales and everyone within it with the essential skills to succeed.  

The Skills Builder Partnership is a coalition of 800+ education institutions, employers, and impact organisations that have united around the Skills Builder Universal Framework and six principles of best practice for essential skills development.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Bethan Jeffers is based in Cardiff and manages Skills Builder Partnership’s essential skills programmes in schools, colleges, and organisations across Wales.
Eleanor Collard leads on communications at Skills Builder Partnership.

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