From education to employment

Non-formal learning: promoting strong character attributes in schools and colleges

During the summer, around the time that George Osborne’s apprenticeship levy was first announced, cross-party think-tank Demos published an interesting report on the state of non-formal learning in UK schools.

According to the research, non-formal learning encompasses that which is “less organised than formal learning, but still consists of planned activities and educational objectives. It is also seen as being more concerned with action, and learning by doing and from experience… with a particular focus on developing social and emotional skills.” To a large extent, then, it can be described as a practical approach to education that promotes many of the so-called soft skills we know to be integral to future success.

Although many schools no doubt have good provision in this regard, the report – which highlights activities such as group work, student presentations, competitive pursuits and work in the community as examples of non-formal learning – identifies a need for improvement. Crucially, it found that students generally want greater opportunities to take part in such learning, while “an overwhelming majority of teachers see non-formal learning as vital, and want… it more strongly embedded into the education system”.

Over 70 per cent of teachers agreed that non-formal education should be recognised in the curriculum, and 68 per cent would like to help deliver more of these sorts of activities in their schools. Interestingly, students from state secondaries were less likely to be satisfied with their access to non-formal learning than those from fee-paying schools. This is particularly relevant this week considering former public school headmaster Dr Anthony Seldon’s assertion that it is not exam results but a “grounding in soft skills” that gives those who attend independent schools an advantage in society.

Since her appointment as secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan has made it very clear that she values character as well as traditional academic achievement; however, the Demos report indicates that teachers simply do not have the time to incorporate non-formal learning into their timetables. The most common barriers to delivery outlined by those surveyed were lack of time and pressures from the inspectorate.

Compounding this point, recent research by the National Union of Teachers goes so far as to suggest that as many as 53 per cent of those in the profession could leave in the next three years, with 61 per cent blaming workload and 57 per cent wanting a better work-life balance. So it’s fair to say that if character is to be taught efficiently going forward, something needs to change: non-formal learning needs to be rooted in the curriculum and reflected somehow in Ofsted inspection criteria and league tables.

A big part of the Peter Jones Foundation’s remit is our national enterprise competition Tycoon in Schools. Schoolchildren from across the UK set up their own businesses with the help of a loan of up to £1,000 provided by the charity. The competition promotes key skills such as confidence, communication and financial management, and the results and feedback we get from participants are consistently excellent; many of the groups that enter continue to run successful businesses way beyond the close of play. But in order to keep numbers high – this year is our most successful to date – we’ve had to adapt to ensure that taking part is as straightforward and hassle-free as possible for those involved. Time has proved a challenging hurdle for us and we have no doubt that many great initiatives promoting important character attributes do not get the levels of engagement they should.

Our experience of working with FE colleges differs in this regard. There is flexibility in FE that allows for real value to be placed on character, with modes of assessment reflecting this. The Peter Jones Enterprise Academy – which is run by the foundation – delivers specialist courses in enterprise and entrepreneurship, and every year our students take part in a series of practice-based business challenges. Their performance in these types of activities can count towards their final grades.

We work with organisations like the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply (CIPS), Grant Thornton, Jessops, Canon and Pets Corner to deliver competitions that nurture real-life, employment-focused skills – skills which will help boost the productivity of the workforce in the long run. If all students were to have sustained access to this sort of learning throughout their formative education, it stands to reason that they will be better prepared for their post-16 years and beyond.

We believe that there is an opportunity to learn from the diversity of enriching experiences available in FE colleges and much of the sector’s approach to building character. It’s frustrating, therefore, that academies and school sixth forms are exempt from the post-16 area reviews currently underway. These reviews are necessary, but to obtain a full and fair understanding of post-16 provision – and how, as a country, we are developing strong character attributes in young people – a complete review reflecting the complex nature of our education system is required.

Alice Barnard is chief executive of the Peter Jones Foundation –

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