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.