The hard value of soft skills

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Much has been written in the national press about the Girls’ Schools Association Head’s conference held last week in Newcastle where Head of the GSA, Hilary French asserted that the ability to filter ideas and knowledge and to practise what we misguidedly call the ‘soft skills’ are fast becoming bigger educational must haves than a string of top examination results. She went on to argue, “I’m beginning to think that ‘soft skills’ is a complete misnomer. What exactly is soft about being able to demonstrate resilience, leadership, integrity, confidence, independent thinking and compassion? What is soft about having the skill to communicate, to keep actively learning and adapting to the world around you?”

We certainly are living in times of great technological change that is impacting on education far more than it ever has done. The top ten fastest growing jobs today did not exist six years ago.  It is therefore imperative that as Heads we consider, very seriously, how we educate the girls today for a very different world to the one in which we grew up. The workplace is so full of new sectors and rapidly changing technologies that there is a growing recognition that education needs to teach the girls more about resilience and flexibility in their thinking so that they can adapt to the changing job market rather than focusing only on the mastery of knowledge. It is our role to ensure that the girls can position themself at the front of the wave of change, embracing and welcoming ideas.

Like the educational pioneers who set up the foundations of Bedford Girls’ School over 130 years ago, we are also living in times of immense social change. Above all else, schooling in the 19th century sought to prepare pupils for their future roles in the industrial age. Ken Robinson articulated this brilliantly during his 2010 TED talk on changing educational paradigms: Bring on the Learning Revolution. At the GSA conference we were encouraged to see a new model of education for the 21st century.

With knowledge and facts at the girls’ finger tips, courtesy of technology there is scope for education to become a more philosophical process, focusing on the value and role of the individual. This means valuing what each of us as individuals can do. Which educational philosophy is more permanent in this new era of change? One that seeks to educate everyone to the same benchmark, filling each and every pupil with an identikit tool kit of knowledge for a bygone industrial age or one that plays to the strengths of pupils as unique individuals and equips them with a diverse skillset and highly personable attributes, alongside academic success? In our brave new world, where change is so rapid and the world is at our fingertips, the value of the latter must surely be greater?    

At BGS we strive to do just that. We focus on the individual girl, creating an environment in which she can flourish. Giving her skills, opportunities and experiences that help her cope with the ever changing world ahead. Hillary French emphasised in her speech that society needed caring, compassionate citizens who can take responsibility and make a valuable contribution to their community. I could not agree more. I want our girls to be outward looking, open to change and most importantly I want them to go out and make a difference to other people’s lives.

As I left Newcastle I stopped off and admired Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. I was reminded of his vision in the creation of this masterpiece which was to grasp the transition from an industrial to information age, and serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears. How appropriate that the GSA Heads’ Conference was addressing these same ideals.

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