Concentration: skill-developing activities such as circus equip students with some of the non-cognitive skills they will need in adult life, such as perseverance and problem solving. Photo: Bill Farr


Cake decoration, kendo, and circus. These are not typical activities you would expect to see at an Australian high school, but such activities can be just as important as traditional subjects in determining student success.

The needs of the workforce are changing, and rapidly evolving technology means that many of the jobs needed in the future do not even exist today, let alone have defined skill sets.

The structure of schools and their subjects are fundamentally unchanged since their inception in the 19th century. Traditional academic subjects have remained at the forefront, focusing on literacy and numeracy, to equip students with the intellectual skills for clearly defined jobs.

This structure is no longer adequate. The needs of the workforce are changing, and rapidly evolving technology means that many of the jobs of the future do not exist today, let alone have defined skill sets.

So what can schools do to prepare students for the future? There is a growing recognition within Australia and internationally of the importance of non-cognitive skills in determining student success. Such skills are rarely measured by standard IQ or achievement tests. These personal qualities are referred to in many different ways – soft skills, non-academic skills, socio-emotional skills – but regardless of the name, it’s important to realise that these qualities can be learnt.

These qualities, such as motivation, problem solving, confidence, perseverance, and communication skills, focus on developing the whole student, and have been shown to increase student wellbeing, enhance connectedness to school, and positively impact academic performance.

In the longer term, possessing these skills has been positively linked to university entrance, and studies show that employers now rate non-cognitive skills as the most valuable when assessing future employees.

While non-cognitive skills are a key element of the Australian Curriculum, they remain embedded in the content of traditional subjects. For students to effectively engage and develop these skills, they need opportunities to develop them outside the traditional classroom setting. Students need to explore areas of personal interest, extend skills they are interested in, build relationships with others from different year levels, and engage with adults in a non-academic environment.

As a teacher, some of the most important learning moments I shared with students were outside the classroom doing activities we both had a genuine interest in. A 15-year-old from my home group struggled with his studies but amazed me with his dummy passes in rugby, which left everyone wondering where the ball was for several seconds.

A talented yet distant 14-year-old, who rarely stayed in class long enough to complete her work, wrote moving lyrics that impressed both me and the record company running the lyric writing workshop at our school.

Many teachers will agree that sharing these sorts of experiences can be invaluable in building the student-teacher relationship and improving student success in and out of the classroom. However, access to such activities and opportunities are rare in most government schools, meaning many students in need of these important life skills are missing out.

Recently, the government launched the new Sporting Schools programme, which aims to get students committed to a long-term sporting life, fostering skills in leadership, teamwork, social inclusion, and community spirit. This is a step in the right direction, and acknowledges the importance of non-cognitive skills. However, we can, and should, be doing more.

The activities can be broadened beyond sport to match more diverse student interests, and can be incorporated more comprehensively into the daily routine of schools. This is already happening in some government schools without targeted program funding.

Brunswick Secondary College is a Victorian government school offering a co-curricular program with a wide range of student-selected activities, catering to many different areas of student interest. These range from niche activities like cake decoration and kendo, to fitness and debating.

The school expects all students to actively commit to at least one co-curricular activity each semester, making it a regular part of their school week. Attendance is monitored and participation recorded in students’ reports. The activities are run by teachers before, during, and after school, with most costs being covered by the relevant learning area. Many teachers find the program satisfying because it allows them to share their passions and skills with students, and relate to their students in a new context.

It is essential for the success of such programmes that the activities are well structured with clearly defined goals, continued skill development, and strong adult leaders. This requires time and effort. Timetables have to be rescheduled, students need to be consulted on the activities they would like, and teachers need to take on the extra commitment of running an activity with limited resources.

But, it doesn’t have to be perfect – real world experiences rarely involve fully resourced activities. By providing students with opportunities to engage with others in activities they are interested in, schools can help nurture and develop the personal qualities that are an essential part of educating the whole student, and are vital for their future success.

Michael Currie is a secondary school teacher who has taught in Melbourne’s western suburbs and now works in Education policy.