Running a tight ship to ensure skills success

Post-Wood Commission, the onus is on schools to improve their vocational offering, finds Julia Belgutay. An Edinburgh secondary shows what can be achieved, from boatbuilding to bike mechanics
3rd April 2015, 1:00am


Running a tight ship to ensure skills success

Rarely has a review of the Scottish education system been as wholeheartedly endorsed as the report by Sir Ian Wood's Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce.

The challenge of keeping young people unlikely to head to university engaged, and supporting them into a meaningful career, is one that Scotland has grappled with for decades. Last month's TESS survey of local authorities on the number of students who still leave education at the earliest opportunity is one indicator of how prevalent the problem is ("Outlook is chilly after rise in winter leavers", News, 27 February).

Young people leaving school at the end of S4 have always been more likely to end up as Neet (not in education, employment or training), and when they move on to college, their dropout rate is higher than average.

The Wood Commission report, published last June, recognises that all parties in education, from schools to colleges, have a role to play in tackling these challenges - and so too do employers. They must work together to ensure meaningful routes for all young people and create a truly world-class vocational education system that is not second-best to Scotland's universities, the report insists.

And it is very clear on how the education sector should make this happen: schools, along with further education and industry partners, should open up pathways that start in the senior phase and lead to recognised vocational qualifications that stand alongside academic ones. "Their delivery should be explicitly measured and published alongside other school performance indicators," the report says.

Furthermore, the Wood Commission stresses that preparing all young people for employment should form "a core element of the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence with appropriate resource dedicated to achieve this".

Diving into the talent pool

The Scottish government swiftly endorsed the report. Only months later, Scotland's Youth Employment Strategy was published and local authority funding was announced to support the implementation of the commission's recommendations.

"Fundamentally, about employers playing an active role, both shaping and benefiting from Scotland's education system by helping to create the talent pool they need and recruiting young employees," said Roseanna Cunningham, minister for fair work, skills and training.

Added to which came this declaration in the Youth Employment Strategy: "In [2021], there will be evidence of increased employer satisfaction, more young people completing vocational qualifications, more achieving qualifications at a higher level, more young people in all secondary schools in Scotland progressing to college, training, university and employment."

Ambitious as this sounds, most schools will not be starting from scratch. Indeed, the Wood Commission and the government recognise that examples of good practice can already be found across Scotland. And it was certainly no coincidence that Craigroyston Community High School in Edinburgh was chosen as the location for the launch of the commission's report.

In 2013, the school dramatically changed its curriculum for the senior phase and the way the last three years of school are structured. A range of vocational courses - including boatbuilding, bike mechanics, hospitality, early education and childcare, and creative hairdressing and make-up trends - have been introduced into the timetable. Crucially, all courses lead to a recognised qualification or award.

The aim has been to establish a curriculum that "meets the needs of all young people", explains headteacher Stephen Ross. "We also have this belief that every young person has the entitlement to stay on to the end of sixth year," he adds. "Often in secondary schools the least-able kids are encouraged to leave at the end of fourth year."

These young people are frequently more difficult to deal with, and they are trapped in this negative role early on in their school careers, Ross says. This is why the commitment of his staff is so crucial: "Not every school would want to keep their most challenging kids."

Integral and flexible

At Craigroyston, wholehearted change was required, not simply a few vocational classes here and there. "None of the courses are just bolt-ons," says depute head Gib McMillan. The senior phase is now about "stage, not age", he explains. From S4 to S6, pupils do the courses and qualifications they are ready for, regardless of age. They also have a free choice when picking subjects for the senior phase, rather than being restricted to options from a number of columns.

Although this approach makes for challenging timetabling, McMillan stresses that "it is possible". As a result of the changes, the staying-on rate from S4 to S5 has increased from 56 per cent to 86 per cent, and just under a quarter of the cohort gain experience at college.

Students are relishing the new opportunities. Sebastian Zpak, an S4 pupil, took part in a project to build a racing car. He was responsible for design and branding tasks, and travelled to Texas as part of the course. He also had to fundraise and give presentations to business people. "Doing the course helped in a lot of ways," he says. "We got a lot of people skills. I was quite shy before, but now I am able to talk to people more easily."

Ciaran Harrison, also in S4, agrees. He is doing a media course and has created videos to highlight the progress of some of the school's other courses, which have been shown in assembly. "I was interested in film-making and was already making short videos," he tells TESS. "We now have a YouTube channel and have just reached 1,000 subscribers. I think having done the course will be a great advantage in whatever I do next."

Partnership working, highlighted in the Wood Commission report as a perceived challenge for schools, has been crucial to offering such a variety of opportunities at Craigroyston. The boatbuilding course is a Muirhouse Youth Development Group initiative, funded by Creative ScotlandBig Lottery Fund and Edinburgh Airport. The bike mechanics course is delivered by social enterprise My Adventure.


Edinburgh College, which has a campus close to the school, also plays a vital role in helping to deliver subjects in areas from childcare to hospitality. Hugh McCluskey, curriculum manager for hospitality and professional cookery at the college, says that Craigroyston pupils are not taught as a distinct group but instead work with other students at a similar level, as well as HND students who have to carry out supervisory tasks as part of their course.

Although the theoretical part of the course is delivered in school, the young people spend time in college once a week and go through four-week rotations to complete units on workplace safety and how to cook meat, fish and vegetables.

"The main objective is to make them work-ready," Mr McCluskey says. He adds that once the pupils have completed the course, they can move on to a level 2 qualification at the college, ensuring they have a clear progression route.

But although Craigroyston may have embraced the challenge of meeting all young people's needs earlier than some other schools, it is determined to continue supplementing and improving the options available to its pupils. A number of new courses will be introduced next year, and some opportunities will be offered as early as S2 or S3.

In the senior phase, pupils will be able to take part in a timetabled course with Apex Hotels, developed by school staff with Danielle Ramsay, group recruitment manager at Apex. The four most successful students on the course will be able to go straight into a job with the hotel group.

As with the professional cookery course, the theoretical side will be delivered in school. However, pupils will also gain practical experience in all aspects of the hotel industry, from housekeeping and food and beverages to reception duties. And students who aren't taken on by Apex will still be able to work towards a number of industry-relevant certificates, adds Elaine Gray, a Craigroyston teacher who helped to develop the course and is also instrumental in delivering childcare qualifications.

The aim of the hotel course, Apex's Ramsay explains, is to "develop the pupils' customer service and operational skills while at the same time giving them the opportunity to learn about the other support functions within the organisation".

It is this kind of commitment that has been key to the success of Craigroyston's vocational programme. Headteacher Ross is in no doubt that the support of his staff has been crucial to making the innovative plans work. And this will be just as vital for all those schools about to take the next steps in their own journeys.

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