Crisis over learning targets

Scotland is 'bottom of the UK heap', ministers are warned by advisory council.

The comforting assumption that Scots have a superior attitude to learning has been exploded by some of the Government's own advisers.

The hitherto unpublished findings, culled by the Advisory Scottish Council for Education and Training Targets from two surveys carried out earlier this year, reveal that more than half the adult population north of the border do not see education or training playing any part in their lives.

"It is a frightening figure and Scotland is at the bottom of the UK heap, " John Ward, the council's chairman, commented.

The key figures emerged from a Gallup poll commissioned by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. The findings indicate that 61 per cent of Scots are "very or fairly unlikely" to take up an education or training opportunity. This puts Scotland 11th out of the 12 UK regions, with Northern Ireland bottom at 64 per cent. The UK average is 55 per cent.

Rates of participation in any kind of learning, currently or recently, are put at 38 per cent in Scotland, against a UK rate of 40 per cent.

The figures have emerged as the Scottish Secretary prepares to digest the report from his Skills Forum, which has been considering how to improve "individual motivation" for education and training. The forum's recommendations are expected to range widely from removal of benefit restrictions against part-time study to cultural barriers.

The problem appears to lie in translating good intentions into practice. The advisory council's report includes a Royal Society of Arts survey which found that 83 per cent of people in Scotland believe learning is "very or fairly important". Yet, asked their reasons for involvement in learning, almost as many cite compulsion (23 per cent) as say it is to gain a qualification (28 per cent).

David Raffe of Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology says that a general respect for learning sits beside a view that "learning is not for me". The fall-off in adult participation contrasts with a relatively high performance in school education compared with the rest of the country.

These findings reinforce the council's own figures on the Government's national education and training targets. While there have been advances at Standard grade and SVQ level II, there has been virtually no progress towards the remaining targets whose deadline is just four years away.

"The issue is in the middle band where we need the vocational qualifications and the basic skill levels where we trail competitor countries very seriously, " Professor Ward told an ASCETT conference last week on lessons to be learnt from the tiger economies of the Far East. "I fear we have reached a plateau and will stay there unless we can persuade people to break through the glass ceiling to 80, 90, 100 per cent with qualifications and skills."

He added: "We are not getting through to management, to the middle group or to the lower aspiration groups."

Professor Ward criticised the "elitism that vocational qualifications are second best". Professor Raffe agreed that vocational aspirations were squeezed "because we have a top-heavy structure in which higher education is much more the pinnacle than it is in England and Wales".

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