Key competences and youth engagement – edging towards the Finnish line?

By Rose Cook

Thursday 25 July 2013

A familiar narrative to followers of educational debates is the Finnish success story. The country has been lauded in particular for its outstanding results in PISA, the OECD’s Programme of International Student Assessment, piquing the interest and envy of its competitor countries.

Finland’s recent announcement that it intends to focus more on developing skills such as critical thinking, creativity and ‘handicrafts’, turning its attention away from the more academic focus of the PISA assessment, will be of great interest to policy makers concerned with international comparisons. This is particularly so in light of another international ‘league table’: the OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance’ figures on young people’s participation in education, employment and training. The 2012 figures show that the UK has one of the highest percentages of 15 to 19 year olds not enrolled in education among OECD countries – more than 20 per cent, compared with under 10 per cent in Finland, the Netherlands and Poland. As Ben Durbin highlighted in a recent blog, this is a concern given the far-reaching consequences for these individuals, the economy and society.

NFER’s own research has highlighted that disengagement from education, while related to multiple factors, can be partly due to the nature of the secondary school curriculum and its perceived lack of relevance to today’s young people. A 2012 literature review suggested that providing a more employment-focused curriculum could be one strategy to combat this. While not a response to disengagement per se, could Finland’s more well-rounded approach offer further clues as to how we might inspire young people at risk of dropping out? Furthermore, could a similar re-orientation help to reverse our position in the OECD rankings of disengagement?

A 21st century curriculum

This new direction for Finland has not occurred in a vacuum – the ideas are likely to be inspired by emerging discussion and research around ‘21st century skills’ and ‘key competences’. These themes have been gaining ground in light of the recognition that employers increasingly articulate the need for a range of skills, such as motivation, communication skills and problem-solving, alongside academic qualifications.

Key competences, now a focus of education policy at the European level, serve this broader agenda. The European Commission has published guidelines on these including a framework which defines what they see as the eight essential skills for all adults in Europe. They are:

  • Communication in the mother tongue
  • Communication in (multiple) foreign languages
  • Math competence and science and technology competence
  • Digital competences
  • Learning to learn
  • Social and civic competences
  • Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship
  • Cultural awareness and expression

They are accompanied by a set of ‘transversal skills’, which should run across all learning:

  • Critical thinking
  • Creativity
  • Initiative
  • Problem solving
  • Risk assessment
  • Decision taking
  • Communication
  • Constructive management of feelings

‘Inspiring a generation’…

So, have key competences found their way into the new revised national curriculum? Selectively – the proposals emphasise citizenship, make foreign languages compulsory for older primary children, and replace ICT with ‘computing’. But an overt focus of current government strategy is academic and, in particular, STEM subjects, as emphasised in a recent speech by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education, Elizabeth Truss. Clearly, the demand for STEM skills is growing, and these subjects should be pushed given their relatively low uptake among young people in England. But can we really agree with Ms. Truss’s bold statement that ‘Maths is the universal language of the 21st century’?

This viewpoint is neglectful of a full range of equally important key competences. Competences such as ‘sense of initiative and entrepreneurship’ and ‘communication in the mother tongue’ have strong relevance for the workplace and, given that they are not so overtly academic, may help to re-engage students with varied educational needs.

In short, we need a broader vision of the 21st century – something that Finland appears to have embraced, with its newfound emphasis on creative, critical and vocational pursuits.

Key competences as a re-engagement strategy?

As our recent report for KeyCoNet (the European policy network on key competences) highlighted, with key competences come a range of innovative teaching methods such as project-based learning, cross-curricular and personalised learning approaches. There is evidence that these sorts of approaches, particularly the offer of alternative, personalised learning pathways, have been successful in re-engaging young people.

Project based learning makes school more like work – involving collaboration, problem-solving and communication. While some evidence is being collected  – for example a current Education Endowment Fund evaluation of project-based learning – there is a need for research on the impact of approaches that emphasise and valorise a full range of key competences via innovative learning and assessment methods. We need to know whether, and how, these approaches might impact on young people’s engagement, and their education and employment outcomes – a key focus of the ‘From Education to Employment’ strand of the NFER Research Programme.

NFER are working on a new sub-theme of this strand, which will look at employability skills and how students can be made ‘work ready’. Our ultimate goal is to harness this evidence in order to develop the capacity of schools and employers to prepare students for work, and in doing so keep them engaged in whatever pathway is appropriate for them. This will ultimately improve these students’ prospects and thereby our position in the OECD disengagement rankings – the international comparison which could be said to matter the most.