Baroness Tyler writes… Developing character and resilience in young people

The Social Mobility All Party Parliamentary Group have been working since 2011 to get an in-depth understanding of what it is that enables some people to get ahead in life whilst others fall behind and aren’t able make the most of their abilities and potential.

What became glaring to us through our report on “The Seven Key Truths of Social Mobility” published last year was the importance of so-called “soft skills”, an area all too often neglected in the social mobility debate. To shine a spotlight on this neglected area we held a Character and Resilience Summit yesterday in Admiralty House involving practitioners, academics and opinion formers from the worlds of education, employment, politics and the voluntary sector, as well as young people themselves who have to had to cope with personal adversity. The aim was to share ideas and new approaches to developing resilience and character in young people as a way of narrowing the life chance gap.

“Soft skills” seems to me something of a misnomer because these aren’t fluffy or cosmetic skills we’re talking about – this is about having the fundamental drive, tenacity and perseverance needed to make the most of opportunities and to succeed – whatever obstacles life puts in your way. The Summit looked at the growing body of research highlighting how character traits and resilience are directly linked to being able to do well at school, university and in the workplace. We heard how working on building resilience to setbacks and an increased sense of control of their lives for young people with low self worth had led to increased literacy and numeracy results. So these so-called “soft skills” can lead to hard results.

Increasingly we hear schools saying that developing these traits is their core business and that for employers these more intangible skills of sticking at it and not giving up or accepting second best, empathy and teamwork is precisely what they’re looking for in potential recruits.

To summarise what we heard from academics, head teachers, employers and charities leaders alike “whatever qualifications you might have, where you are on the character scale will have a big impact on what you achieve in life”. An amazingly diverse range of speakers, from how the Headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, teaches his pupils about failing and pick themselves up again, to how Camila Batmanghelidjh – founder of Kids Company – works with some of the most deeply traumatised children in the country to rebuild their basic self-worth and faith in life, highlighted just what amazing work is being done and the difference it’s making. Alan Milburn, Chairman of the Social Mobility Commission told the Summit that we needed to break down the “Berlin Wall” between schools in the state and independent sectors to help create a more level playing field of opportunity for all. Yesterday confirmed for me that the All Party Group is onto something important for those who care about social justice. These skills really can be taught – but how do we spread the message and the good practice wider, what examples could be scaled up cost effectively and what does this mean for wider public policy?

A lot of good ideas were generated for most focus on emotional development and building relationships in early years settings, support for parents at home, introducing incentives to put more focus on these skills in schools, greater awareness in teacher training, better collaboration with the youth and voluntary and community sector. It also became clear that the needs for these skills don’t stop at 18. Some employers – and we heard direct from BT at the summit – were investing directly in the resilience and emotional wellbeing of their employees. I think my favourite quote was “people are hired for their skills and fired for their attitude”.

The All Party Group will be sending a copy of the post Summit report to Nick Clegg, who has taken an interest in the work of the Group and sent a message of support.

* Claire Tyler, Baroness Tyler of Enfield, has been in the House of Lords since 2011, taking an active role in the areas of health and social care, welfare reform, social mobility, well-being, children and family policy, machinery of government and the voluntary sector.

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9 Comments

  • Helen Tedcastle 7th Feb '13 - 2:12pm

    @ Claire Tyler: ” It also became clear that the needs for these skills don’t stop at 18. Some employers – and we heard direct from BT at the summit – were investing directly in the resilience and emotional wellbeing of their employees. I think my favourite quote was “people are hired for their skills and fired for their attitude”.

    I think this is absolutely crucial. I think one cannot ‘teach’ resilience but it can be developed as a skill at school eg: from confidence-building, small group presentations in class, to performing on a stage in front of hundreds of people etc..

    However, when pupils leave the structure and normally supportive environment of a school, and enters the workplace, often the power games, back-stabbing, dog-eat-dog environment does not bring out the best in people .

    A cultural shift in the workplace environment ( and I include the public services, where one is encouraged through targets to ‘compete’ rather than collaborate), would lead I think, to a lessening of recorded incidences of people leaving work due to anxiety and depression – this includes people who did well and at school and university.

    Depression and mental illness is not selective, unfortunately – and I don’t think you can teach people not to get it.

  • jenny barnes 7th Feb '13 - 3:47pm

    my favourite quote was “people are hired for their skills and fired for their attitude”.

    Big improvement in morale; I fired all the unhappy people. Social mobility, available, at a price from a fee-paying school near you.

  • Helen Tedcastle 7th Feb '13 - 4:02pm

    @ Jenny Barnes: ” Big improvement in morale; I fired all the unhappy people.”

    So mental illness is just being ‘unhappy.’ I wonder whether resilience lessons in schools could have a lesson on how to deal with unreasonable employers.

    “Social mobility, available, at a price from a fee-paying school near you.” No. To get into a fee-paying school you have to have money. Those who have that much money are normally more socially advantaged than others. It’s not rocket-science.

  • Richard Dean 8th Feb '13 - 5:32am

    What is glaring to me through your report on “The Seven Key Truths of Social Mobility” (http://www.appg-socialmobility.org/) is the importance of the home environment, in terms of the development probably of curiosity and confidence in early years, and in terms of encouragement and support later.

  • Richard Dean 8th Feb '13 - 3:19pm

    Is there a sense in which “developing character and resilience” may be putting blame for social immobility incorrectly onto individuals – as if saying “if only people had character and resilience, they’d be ok”? It’s not far from saying “poor people have no character or resilience”, which is far from true. The report suggests surely that the environment that individuals develop and work in is critical, and the quality of its interactions with individuals?

  • The big advance in social mobility came when women entered the workplace and higher education in large numbers. Since then we have seen an ossification of social mobility. This is hardly surprising; those who;ve had higher education will tend to select their mate from within the pool of the higher-educated, and its value will be reinforced doubly to their offspring by their parents’ experience.

  • Baroness Tyler: “Alan Milburn, Chairman of the Social Mobility Commission told the Summit that we needed to break down the “Berlin Wall” between schools in the state and independent sectors to help create a more level playing field of opportunity for all.”

    Did Alan Millburn offer any suggestions as to how this might be achieved? The most obvious one is for the state sector to provide schools that those currently opting to send their children to independent schools would choose in preference.

    Why do those who can afford it choose independent schools?

  • Ed Shepherd 8th Feb '13 - 11:26pm

    Perhaps it is wrong to tell children that they must develop “character and resilience”? Perhaps, children should consider that if the way in which society is run results in poverty and un(der) employment, then the answer is to change society not to tolerate unfairness…Working alongside young people from deprived backgrounds, it strikes me that they have “character and resilience” in abundance. They seem willing to accept being near the bottom of the heap without ever questionning why some people are allowed to remain at the top of the heap and some people at the bottom. What is the point in having the “character and resilience” to pass all your exams if it just leads a person to un(der)employment and student debt? Perhaps the young people who give up on ambition are the more enlightened ones. Perhaps we should be encouraging children to campaign for widespread change not to accept that things must always stay as they are…

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