The lead-up to Tuesday 6 August will be an anxious time for many in Scotland. SQA results day is a time of trepidation for everyone involved – not least because it’s the end of many months and years of study, but also because it marks the beginning of the next stage of someone’s learner journey.
My own journey took me from school to Glasgow Central College of Commerce (now City of Glasgow College) to study an HNC, before I started work with the South of Scotland Electricity Board. Eventually I decided to pursue further study at the University of Stirling, and was able to add my HNC to my Highers to do so.
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I consider my college and university experiences to have had an equal impact on my educational outcomes, setting me in good stead for my current role as minister of further education, higher education and science.
Of course, things have come a long way since then. The sector is now a lot more innovative and colleges continue to go beyond the traditional boundaries of further education. Thanks to increased collaboration between education and industry, routes into employment for young people are the most diverse they have ever been.
It would be hard to imagine, back then, the journey of a sixth-year pupil like Tafara Gopoza, who’s already on his way to a career thanks to a civil engineering Foundation Apprenticeship at Glasgow Kelvin College. Studying the two-year apprenticeship alongside his Highers, it’s given him work experience with a local construction firm and a Higher-level qualification before he’s even left school.
Colleges like Ayrshire have now turned specialisation to their advantage. After it became Scotland’s first nationally approved training provider in composite materials used in the aerospace industry, the college's partnership with Ryanair resulted in 10 students getting jobs with the company.
Similarly, in an enterprise area known for food and drink manufacturing, West Lothian College has entered into partnership projects with local manufacturers like Macrae Edinburgh, AK Stoddart and Glen Turner Distillery.
Improved collaboration between industry and academia is resulting in more opportunities for young people to get to experience the world of work while they study – a recent Digital Skills Partnership project, for one, gave teams of college and university students the chance to work together on industry-style briefs.
These are just a few of the many fantastic examples around Scotland, but there are still untapped opportunities. West College Scotland’s Skills Survey highlighted that 86 per cent of employers reported skills gaps in their current workforce, and workforce planning was identified as their biggest challenge for the next year.
West College Scotland is using this data to future-proof its curriculum. I welcome its approach and that of other colleges around the country which are already considering how to respond to emerging skills gaps, particularly in the wake of Brexit.
Responding to these challenges will require colleges to adapt their offer and look for more local opportunities to meet the needs of individuals, businesses and communities throughout their area – whether it comes through an apprenticeship, delivering qualifications for progression to university or vital skills for employment.
Now, more than ever, there is no such thing as a “wrong path” to success – and Scotland’s colleges have a vital role to play to ensure that continues. It is time we celebrated all learner paths. We all have a role to play in helping young people to navigate the sheer diversity of options available so they can find the path that is right for them.
Richard Lochhead is Scotland's minister for further education, higher education and science