The skills that the school system forgot

How one teacher made it his mission to put skills, rather than just facts to be regurgitated, firmly on the curriculum

Tom Ravenscroft is the Founder and CEO of Enabling Enterprise, a social enterprise whose mission is to equip young people with the skills, aspirations and experiences they need to succeed in life.

Having recently published a book called The Missing Piece distilling the keys lessons he has learnt while running Enabling Enterprise, Sunil Suri sat down to interview him and learn a little more.

Can you tell us a little about why you’ve written this book?

To put it into context, I setup Enabling Enterprise eight years ago and at the time I’d been a secondary school teacher for a couple of years. I felt like there was this massive piece of my student’s educational experience that was missing. I thought a good education should build their knowledge and understanding and also help develop them in terms of their character.

But I also realised there were some skills they were going to need if they wanted to be successful. Skills like teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, self-management and creativity. I couldn’t really see where we were teaching these skills at the time. What Enabling Enterprise has done is develop a curriculum for schools that allows schools to develop those skills with the same rigour as any academic subject.

I think we’ve had some success with that – we’ve grown from that single classroom eight years ago to working with just over 85,000 young people last year. I guess my sense is that this is really a systematic issue. What I wanted to do with the book was try to draw together everything that we’d learned over the past eight years to make it available to everyone interested in it. We really wanted to share what we’ve learnt along the way.

Can you tell a little more about Enabling Enterprise in terms of how it works for people who might not be familiar? 

The first thing to note is that we work with children as young as three years old right up to the age of eighteen. It really is one of the most important principles: unless you are working with children as soon as they are entering the school system you are never going to be able to do anything than a quick fix and that isn’t enough.

Most of our young people get a programme that has three different elements. First, they get a regular enterprise lesson which contains theory and practice. So one week they might be focusing on teamwork. For a ten-year-old one of things they have to learn is how to run an effective meeting, to know that it’s good to allocate different roles for group members. We teach them three roles: a facilitator, a note taker and a time keeper. They learn that quickly and apply it by running a team meeting that supports an ongoing project they are working – for example, creating a radio show. So the idea is that you can teach it very directly, but you only really develop it by practising it.

This is complemented by what we call Challenge Days, which are whole days where they might create a political campaign or design a new moon base! Those days are a chance for them to demonstrate they’ve developed all these skills we’ve shown them. We invite parents along so they get an understanding as well.

The third part is that the kids get the opportunity to visit employers and see the working world. They see quite vividly how the same skills that they learn in the classroom will be useful in the rest of their lives.

So that is the students’ experience. We do a lot with teachers as well and give them tools so they can assess the students’ skills, which is really important.

Are there people who played a big role in your own educational development?

One of the challenges with the work we do is that we often talk to people – teachers and other professionals – who have built a good level of competency in these skills. But in their experience, they have never been explicitly taught these skills in school. So sometimes one of the biggest barriers is that people assume because they can’t remember being taught it themselves, either they were born with these skills or they sort of imagine that everyone can pick these skills up by osmosis.

What was really interesting writing the book was that, given that I wasn’t explicitly taught this stuff, I asked myself where did I pick skills up? I remember when I was picking which secondary school to go to with my mum and dad. We listed the schools and things I cared about, like did it have good IT facilities? Was it a mixed school? I gave each one a score and then weighted them. And actually that – the simple method of developing criteria and judging options against them – is a decision making tool that I was never taught in school. I was taught that by my mum and dad and it kind of stuck. When people think about these skills it is clear we are taught them, but just in a very scattergun way. And if you come from a privileged background you do get opportunities to build these skills. However, children and young people from disadvantaged background don’t and this is where Enabling Enterprise focuses its work.

Over the years a number of organisations have setup with a mission to improve education in this country. It is now a very crowded space. As someone who has setup a very successful social enterprise in this space, what gaps remain that might be ripe for social innovation?

A huge amount has been achieved in education over the last decade. There have obviously been a lot of structural changes, but what I see really making the difference is the innovation that changes what happens in individual classrooms across Britain.

There are still barriers facing students with special educational needs. I feel like that is an area that is not being supported as much, especially by the government over the past decade. I think their is still a huge challenge around children who are basically dropping out of education. Some end up in Pupil Referral Units – and while some are amazing, many are not. There is a real question about what we are doing for those young people where school isn’t working for them.

With the increase in apprenticeships, there is a question whether schools are preparing young people to go into apprenticeships in the same way that they prepare them to go to uni. I think an interesting challenge would be to see how you can connect young people to these apprenticeship opportunities.

You have just been appointed the Secretary of State for Education. What three changes would you make?

The first thing I would do is move beyond the very stale argument whether we should be teaching knowledge, character or skills. Clearly we need to accept that a good education includes all three elements. The second thing I would do is role out “Skills Builder”. This is a framework that a coalition of fifty organisations including Enabling Enterprise is developing, which sets out a common language around the types of skills we are trying to teach. With this we would be able move beyond arguments about language and actually explore what works, which is what matters. The third thing I would focus on is young people who are not in mainstream educational settings, particularly young people in care, so that get much more support.