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Aspiration is no longer enough

Young people are daily encouraged to aspire. The Government sets training targets. Higher education remains popular despite students' funding problems. Yet obstacles continually appear to discourage the bravest heart.

On the page opposite one of many disappointed new teachers points out the blow to enthusiasm which unemployment and lack of interest in her qualifications are bound to produce. She and her colleagues were expensive to train, and were admitted to a university or college under a quota system intended to strike a balance between supply and demand.

Last week, in the Pathways to Careers supplement, we told the stories of several users of the exam Helpline which annually advises those who have just had their Higher results. One pupil with three Higher passes has been unable to secure a place on even an HNC or HND course, much less at a university. Clearly, she has been unlucky and was ill advised: the Helpline did not enjoy its proudest moment. But since she and the other Helpline users who were interviewed were chosen almost at random, her experience may not be unique. The Helpline advisers - and the schools - do good work in guiding young people. The Scottish Examination Board is sensitive in its appeal procedures. But there remain young people who feel let down by the system.

Those going on to higher education are no longer an elite. In a mass system, encompassing about 40 per cent of the age group, the need to take account of individuals' differing sets of qualifications and ambitions poses problems. Despite the criticisms of fashionable commentators, young people do not expect the future to be handed them on a plate. They are more inured to setbacks and to casual employment than previous generations, for whom a job path was often clearly set out.

But there is a risk of wasted talents and opportunities, not to mention inefficient use of national resources. Highlighting particular cases illustrates a national problem that can be disguised in statistics and in the conventional claim that qualifications are the counter to unemployment.

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