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Four lists provided the starting point for this post.

The first comes from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) an alliance which boasts support from some major global corporates including Lego, Fisher Price and Pearson. It is a list of the key skills which this employer-led group thinks should be inculcated in school students:

Learning and Innovation Skills

• Creativity and Innovation
• Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
• Communication
• Collaboration

Information, Media and Technology Skills

• Information Literacy
• Media Literacy
• ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) Literacy

Life and Career Skills

• Flexibility and Adaptability
• Initiative and Self-Direction
• Social and Cross-Cultural Skills
• Productivity and Accountability
• Leadership and Responsibility

The second, which is handily alliterative, is also directed towards the learning needs of children. It comes from Bill Lucas, Guy Claxton and colleagues and has been promoted in a range of publications:

• Confidence
• Curiosity
• Collaboration
• Communication
• Creativity
• Commitment 
• Craftsmanship

The third comes from a very convincing and readable pamphlet by Johnny Rich written for the Higher Education Policy Institute. It is a list of measurable skills which Rich argues could form the basis for measuring the added learning provided by universities and linking it to the skills demands of employers and careers.

• Initiative
• Resourcefulness
• Communication
• Numeracy
• IT skills
• Teamwork
• Organisation
• Enterprise
• Creativity
• Learning

The fourth comes from the Fair Work Framework produced by the Scottish Fair Work Convention. It comprises the five dimensions the Convention argues makes up fair work:

• Security
• Respect
• Opportunity
• Effective voice
• Fulfilment

There are significant differences between these lists. The final one relating to fair work is not only much shorter but also combines elements which could be seen as being primarily about entitlements (security and respect) with elements which are more about creating a potential which can only be met through the active participation of workers. Having said this, it isn’t a huge stretch to see how opportunity, effective voice and fulfilment might be broken down into elements echoing some aspects of the other lists particularly if we understand opportunity not just in terms of the possibilities that a person has in a specific organisation but the wider options they have in their working and civic life.

Looking at these lists together and focussing on commonalities suggests a way of thinking about skills running through education and work. The role of schooling can be seen as laying the foundations for these skills, post compulsory education through university or apprenticeships can be seen as developing skills (both in the sense of deepening and focussing) while the goal for work should be that it applies and refreshes core skills. The aim of a common skills framework would not be that all people are developing all skills at all times but that we have a shared basis and understanding which enables people to make better choices. 

This emphasis on skills is not to suggest that knowledge is unimportant, not that there is any essential trade-off between knowledge and skills.However, unlike knowledge where specialising in some fields tends inevitably to mean that we abandon others, when it comes to skills the fact that we haven’t had a chance to develop and express, for example, our creativity in the past may be precisely the reason to pursue a creative option now. Also, while the need for specialist knowledge inevitably separates people in education and at work, core skills can be a unifying framework and force. A conversation about core skills enables us to link work, education and lifelong personal development as a social and individual level.

The idea of a common core skills framework as a means to widen the focus of schooling, to enrich and focus advanced education and to define the content of good work is exciting and could be socially transformative. This might equally suggest it is idealistic and unattainable. But need it be?

At the RSA we sometimes look at a social challenge and (using a framework roughly adapted from cultural theory) ask how the different forms of power generated by authority, by social norms and values, and by individual aspiration align to block progress and how they might be realigned. From this perspective, while we can see many current barriers in anything from Government policy on the school curriculum to assumptions of workplace adversarialism, there is no reason why a new and better equilibrium might not be achieved. A common skills framework could help the Government toward national goals such as higher productivity, improved social mobility and stronger public service performance accountability, it could align with a popular sense of fairness and idealism and it could help organisations and individuals pursue their own goals.

The highest barrier to change is the need to bring together demand, supply and information. Pupils, parents, students, employers and wider society have to agree what core skills we need and demand access to those skills; educational providers and employers have to be willing and able to supply them; we need information that tells us whether we are providing those skills, who has got them and how they are being used to help individuals, organisations and society.

I am not, of course, the first person to suggest a skills framework for learning from cradle to grave (although I would be interested to hear about other attempts), but the secret to social innovation is as much about timing as novel ideas. In the context of economic dysfunction, social discontent and technological change, at a time when we need to be inspired by 21st century human possibilities, at a time – more prosaically – when a Conservative Government is recognising the need for fairness and opportunity at work – perhaps it is time to overcome the differences between our various lists and instead focus on the ideal of every citizen being able to develop and renew their core skills.

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