When our pupils become employees, what kind of jobs will there be? An exploration of how the 4 Cs can provide them with life skills for the future workplace, from Kate McCallam.

As we begin Spring Term 1, many parents and teachers will have met or ‘Zoomed’ for parents’ evening and discussed where a child sits in the working towards/expected/greater depth expectations scale that teachers use to assess primary pupils’ academic performance. The focus rests largely on Maths and English and if a child is not reaching the expected standard or swimming about in the elusive ‘greater depth’ (G/D) waters, it can be hard to communicate to parents and harder still to hear. But why do schools continue to focus so much attention on these subjects when we know that being good at them does not guarantee success in the workplace?

We know that success in Maths and English, and indeed academic success, or rather the way in which we measure it currently, is not the be-all and end-all many parents think it is. Even if a child is above average in all disciplines, it does not guarantee career success in the world they will eventually work in. What matters is something entirely different and it’s about time we started transmitting this message to the parents and changing our curriculum and assessment to reflect it.

Educators around the world agree that in order to succeed in the future world of work, one where more and more workplace tasks will be undertaken by technology and AI, humans need to leverage what makes them human – and that boils down, as many of you will know, to four key skills (The 4Cs): creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.

The WEF (World Economic Forum) undertook a study in 2018, ‘The Future of Jobs Report’ 1 where it ranked the most important skills in the workplace and predicted the demand for a variety of different skills. Its subsequent 2020 report gave further insight 2. This data and the trends it highlighted was why more and more educators began calling for an overhaul of our primary and secondary curricular and assessment systems as they currently stand. The data (and more besides) suggested an urgent need for educational reform, one which would address the teaching and assessing of the very skills we know will be crucial in the job market of the future.

Innovative reformers such as those behind ‘Rethinking Assessment’ 3 argue that we should stop adhering to a curriculum which focuses on subjects-specific course content and a largely knowledge-based exam at the end, and focus on teaching our children the things that matter more, such as communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills. The group also makes a convincing argument for the scrapping of GCSEs in favour of a portfolio-type assessment outside of the confines of two hours in an exam hall. In addition, they are in favour of an assessment that evidences an application of knowledge and one which promotes and acknowledges oracy skills as a means of showing what a pupil understands.

Employers support this. They are increasingly reporting that our graduates lack vital skills and characteristics for the workplace despite their impressive academic credentials.

Skills vs academia

It seems it simply isn’t enough to be an expert in your field (arguably it never has been), and so the next time we engage in a parents’ evening, rather than discussing if a pupil is reaching the expected level in Maths or English, we should really be talking about how well they collaborate, how good they are at problem solving or how creative they are. This holds sway with me as both a parent and a teacher.

We all know kids who might not be great academically, but you just know they’ll be a success in the workplace because they are a great team player, they never give up, they have curiosity is spades – they are the ones you don’t worry about, and you urge parents who have hang-ups from their own grade-obsessed education to do the same.

What you do have to do is make sure their self-esteem doesn’t take a beating because the way in which we measure success at school may not fit their skillset. As a parent, feedback from my son’s Y3 summer school report and recent Y4 parents’ evening was heavily focused on Maths and English. He does well in these subjects, but he’s far better at Science, Art and DT and PE and has creativity and imagination in spades, but these were not assessed – indeed, we were told that he could not have achieved Greater Depth (G/D) in any of those subjects at his age as there weren’t enough guidelines on what G/D in Art looked like in Y3 or they had to have done sculpting to get it. I’m not hung up on G/D or expected or whatever, but I do think we need to change the narrow narrative we report and assess on currently to include working out how well a child is doing in the 21st century skills such as the 4Cs.

Take Creativity, for example. As a skill, it has most definitely grown in importance since 2015 and gets an awful lot of airtime among today’s educators. PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) 4 , a branch of the OECD 5 , is so interested in creativity that it is carrying out a global assessment of creative thinking among some of its member countries.

What is creative thinking?

PISA employs a definition of creative thinking that is relevant to 15-year-old students around the world. “Creative thinking in PISA 2021 is defined as the competence to engage productively in the generation, evaluation and improvement of ideas, that can result in original and effective solutions, advances in knowledge and impactful expressions of imagination.” 6

The findings will be presented in 2024. We will discover which country has the most creative pupils and, presumably therefore, which country is most likely to have the strongest future workforce. This is clearly of great importance for educators and world leaders alike. Interestingly, and rather disappointingly, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have dropped out of the assessment. Goodness knows why? Perhaps it is because we don’t yet know how to teach and assess the 4Cs, so if the results did show up inadequacies compared to our international counterparts, we wouldn’t know what to do about it. But surely we have to face the data head on, especially when it refers to a crucial 21st century skill?

The challenge for educators is in working out how to go about teaching the 4Cs, both as subjects in their own right and as skills to be taught within other subjects such as History, Music and Science. We must then work out how to go about assessing these key skills and measuring pupil progress in them, much like we do with individual subjects. This is tricky. How do you measure somebody’s creativity or ‘collaborativeness’ in a fair and scientifically-proven way? It’s not the sort of thing you can find out from a once-a-year exam and perhaps therein lies the problem.

Teachers and schools are often drawn to (or pushed into) teaching what can be assessed and tracked, which is why so much of our wonderfully broad and exciting primary school curriculum has been cut out as schools come under pressure to demonstrate impressive SATS results.

If there was ever an example of an exam that certainly did not measure 21st century skills it would be SATS – regurgitating one’s knowledge of a fronted adverbial is perhaps the least creative pursuit I can think of!

Balancing the curriculum

I am not saying that aptitude in the 3 Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) is not important – it is. Subject knowledge does and will always need to be taught and taught well, but if a child is not ‘academic’ in the way that we currently measure it, many parents might find it reassuring to know that if they are brilliant at one or two of the 4Cs, then they will have an excellent chance of securing career success and career longevity. Conversely, if you are teaching a high-flying academic child who hasn’t got a creative bone in their body or who can’t work in a team, you will need to start thinking about supporting them in improving in these areas and letting parents know that this matters too.

Think back to your own school years. I bet you can remember some former classmates who were ‘underachievers’ at school, but who went on to be incredibly successful in their chosen careers. Perhaps you were one of them yourself? Similarly, did the high-flyers in your year group always go on to achieve the same success in the workplace? Not always. I’d be willing to bet that those ‘underachievers’ have one or more of the 4Cs in abundance.

If I were a Head now, I would make sure that I found a way to teach, assess and report on the 4Cs, and I would give them equal prominence to Maths and English.


  1. The Future of Jobs Report 2018 World Economic Forum
  2. https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobsreport-2020
  3. Rethinking Assessment https://rethinkingassessment.com/
  4. PISA is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. It measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge within member countries. The 2022 creative thinking test is an opt-in.
  5. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) is an intergovernmental economic organisation with 38 member countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade.
  6. PISA 2021 Creative Thinking Framework Third Draft


  • Kate McCallam

    Kate is assistant head at the British Section of the Lycée International in Paris. She is also a published writer and a proud trustee of Arvon, the UK’s leading creative writing charity. Kate also provides writing training and workshops.
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