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Catherine Whitaker is CEO and Head of Learning at EtonX, a leading online provider of soft skills for international schools and a subsidiary of Eton College. In September 2018, the company launched its Future Skills Programme, a series of online courses for teenagers which enhance their school and university studies and prepare them for the workplace. EtonX’s first courses are Making An Impact, Public Speaking, Verbal Communication, Writing Skills, Interview Skills, CV Writing, Critical Thinking and Entrepreneurship – with more courses set to follow in 2019.

Eton X will be running a seminar at the COBIS Annual Conference (May 11th-13th).

Are we preparing our children adequately for the rapidly-changing world of learning and work?

Have we placed too much faith in good academic grades as the springboard for a successful education and a fulfilling career? Can we redress the imbalance between exam performance and soft skills without undermining schools and teachers?

International research suggests that children today may be better educated than ever in purely academic terms, but they are not ready to cope in the globalised workplace where the goal posts keep moving.

Technology and automation are reshaping the very nature of work. The World Economic Forum estimates that more than 80 million jobs will be lost to automation over the next few years alone.¹ Employers and teachers agree that students must strive continually to develop their academic and life skills if they are to enjoy successful future careers.

The extent to which employers around the world want more of a focus on vocational and soft skills in our classroom is well documented.² But parents too are joining the clamour. When the UK Department for Education surveyed parents’ views on the relative merits of technical and soft skills, only 15% thought that academic achievement was the key to a successful career.³

In a highly-competitive education market, systematic teaching of soft skills is seen as crucial if young adults are to better manage their studies and work – and make informed life choices. Take critical thinking. In a survey of 1,000 teachers worldwide, the vast majority (92%) saw this subject as one of the keys to success in higher education but almost as many – 85% – thought it was the skill that students most conspicuously lacked at the 16+ stage.⁴

In a world that feeds on online news sources (a UK study in 2018 found that only two per cent of children could identify fake news and one quarter of older children did not trust online and social media sources of news⁵), young people’s ability to weigh up evidence and identify the misuse of facts has never been so important.

No-one doubts the need to boost soft skills but schools can struggle to find the right resources to develop them, or find time to focus on them, either in the curriculum or in co-curricular activities. Many teachers are already hard-pressed delivering schools’ expectations of academic success and perhaps don’t realise that technology can be one way of filling the skills gap.

Innovations such as EtonX’s bespoke virtual classroom which allows soft skills courses to be offered online could be the solution. That is because they enable students to develop wider job-related skills – in and out of school timetables. Drawing on our virtual classroom’s live video streaming for groups, these soft skills courses are a step up from one-dimensional e-learning tools. That’s because they allow natural teacher-student interactions as well as genuine communication between young people through conversations, role plays and debates. Soft skills are for the most part competencies that have to be practised more than taught.

The new virtual classrooms are humanising technology, so teenagers can develop skills such as how to give a speech, assert themselves or handle a tricky conversation. Such progress would not have been possible with older versions of online classes in which students tended to be lectured in ‘one-to-many’ style.


In the case of critical thinking – regarded by some as a skill required for academic studies until the fake news debate really took off – EtonX’s exciting online course makes use of interactive learning content and weekly live online group classes to help children learn these crucial evaluation skills, away from the news feeds and social media they access every day.

Sceptics might ask if there are learning benefits from balancing academic and soft skills. The data show academic as well as practical benefits: a World Economic Forum analysis of academic results worldwide in 2016 showed that students with social and emotional learning skills average academic outcomes 11 percentage points higher than those without.⁶

It’s time to bring in more soft skills and give our children a rounded education they need in our fast-changing world.

To find out more about EtonX’s soft skills courses, please visit:

¹ The Future of Jobs Report 2018, World Economic Forum, September 2018, available at:

² The McKinsey Global Institute 2017 Technology, Jobs and the Future of Work report found that 60% of employers around the world said graduates were not adequately prepared for the world of work.

³ Just 15% of adults see academic qualifications as key to success, TES, January 25, 2019:

⁴ School leavers lack the critical thinking skills needed for university, exam board warns, TES, January 25, 2014 at:

⁵ Final report from the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools, published on 13 June 2018, at:

⁶ New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology, World Economic Forum, March 2016 at:

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