Are academic qualifications enough?

“We strongly believe in the development of skills in supporting our students to be prepared for their future life outside of school, just as important, if not more important, than academic qualifications. Being part of the Accelerator programme has really helped us to drive forward the development of these skills and to change the culture of the school.” (Skills Builder Partnership, 2021)[1]

This is a quote from the recently published ‘Impact Report 2021’ from the Skills Builder Partnership and it is taken from our recent case study that I wrote at the end of our year taking part in the Skills Builder Accelerator programme. The full report can be found here.

Over the last eighteen months it has become acutely clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on our young people and in particular their career pathways but more strikingly on the purpose and impact of school. For many years, successfully gaining high-quality qualifications has been the main point of young people going to school. Likewise, through school performance tables, schools are measured on how much progress students make by the time they leave at the end of key stage four or five, how many students gain grades 4+ or 5+ in English and Maths, how many achieve the EBACC qualification, and a whole range of other academic measurements. Whilst the successful achievement of qualifications is very important, it is only one part of the jigsaw. The pandemic has made it clear that young people need a lot more than just academic qualifications if they are going to thrive, not only when they leave school, but also whilst they are at school.

This is something that has really resonated since March 2020. Across the country, we have students leaving school in their thousands with rafts of grade 8s, 9s or A*s, who, on paper, are destined to go on and be successful no matter what the pathway – but are they necessarily prepared for what is ahead? As Careers Leader, I have engaged with more colleagues outside of school than ever before. I am continuously hearing the same messages, particularly from some very influential business leaders, who say that, whilst they do take notice of a young person’s qualifications, they are looking for a lot more, and, on most occasions, it is the personal qualities that convince an employer which person they would prefer to have working with them. In an interview, some of the most qualified young people, who, on paper, should be able to do the job easily, cannot answer simple questions, such as “Tell me about when you have successfully led a team” or “Give me an example of where you have not been successful and what you have done to overcome this” or even more simply “What do you like to do in your free-time?”

It is not just about preparing for an interview. Young people need to have the necessary life-skills to thrive outside of school. They need to be prepared for life events such as: applying for a mortgage, understanding a pay slip, making sure they know they are paying enough tax, helping someone in a medical emergency, and more. This list is endless. I recently watched a ‘Martin Lewis Money Show Special’ where financial expert Martin Lewis was on a mission to find out what children and young people need to learn about money. During the programme, Martin explained to young people about the importance of understanding a credit score and how to spot an online scam. Skills which are essential for young people to survive financially, yet Martin explained that 60% of schools do not actively teach financial education. All of this is not about academic qualifications, and these skills cannot be learned in one specific subject, which means that school has a responsibility for preparing our young people for such future events.

The measurement of these life skills does not feature in performance tables – do schools know how much progress students have made in developing their life skills? How successful is a school in preparing a student for their wider lives? It is really pleasing that Ofsted are now recognising these skills within their new Inspection Framework, where schools are judged on how “the curriculum provided by schools should extend beyond the academic, technical or vocational.” (Ofsted, 2021)[2] However, the framework also notes that the personal development judgement “recognises that the impact of the school’s provision for personal development will often not be assessable during pupils’ time at school” (Ofsted, 2021).

Over the last two years, we have thoroughly embraced the Skills Builder Framework[3] as it provides a structure to support teaching of essential skills and to recognise that they are vital in preparing young people for their wider lives. What is also interesting to note is that teachers and young people are increasingly advocating for building skills. A report from the Sutton Trust in October 2017 demonstrates the importance of such life skills with “88% of young people, 94% of employers and 97% of teachers saying that they are as or more important than academic qualifications” and that “more than half of teachers (53%) believe that life skills are more important than academic qualifications to young people’s success and 72% believe their school should increase their focus on teaching life skills.” (Sutton Trust, 2017)[4] In the same report it says that 88% of young people believe that essential skills are as or more important than getting good grades, yet only 20% of these young people say that their school curriculum helps them ‘a lot’ with the development of the skills.

The challenge and concern that many schools face is how can they emphasise and develop skills in an already crammed curriculum. The main message, what we have been emphasising within our school, is that developing essential skills is not an add-on. For a school to successfully prepare students for the future, the skills need to be embedded seamlessly within the already existing school curriculum. It is obvious that an improvement in essential skills will positively correlate with academic achievement as students will be more prepared to face the challenges of making academic progress. They will have the transferable tools needed to adapt within different situations and to recognise how the skills can be applied to each subject. Therefore, by working with teachers to support students in developing these skills consistently within every subject, and then building on the skills further outside of the classroom, they will become embedded in the school.

Finally, coming back around to my introduction, by embedding the skills, we are making a change here in the culture of our schools and moving away from academic qualifications being the most important by making these qualifications and skills equally as important as each other and preparing our young people for the path ahead.


[1] https://www.skillsbuilder.org/impact

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-eif/school-inspection-handbook

[3] https://www.skillsbuilder.org/

[4] https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Life-Lessons-Report_FINAL.pdf

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