Gloom over skills gap

The Government plans to renew the national education and training targets, as the body charged with boosting the attainment of academic and vocational qualifications admits for the first time that some are unattainable over the next two years.

The latest revelations of Scotland's stubborn aversion to training will be a particular blow to ministers, so soon after they placed lifelong learning near the top of Labour's educational agenda.

The Scottish Office has taken over the administration of the Advisory Scottish Council on Education and Training Targets (Ascett) following the departure of Stephanie Young, the director for the past four years, and her assistant to head the new lifelong learning section at the Glasgow Development Agency.

The council's annual report, normally issued with a fanfare, has been released by the Scottish Office this year virtually unnoticed. With two years to go before the deadline of 2000 for reaching the four main targets,the report warns that progress in key areas has been "very disappointing".

The number of young people with three Higher passes or the vocational equivalent has risen from 48 per cent to just 53 per cent. The target is 70 per cent and Ascett admits it will not be reached.

The proportion of the workforce with Highers or their equivalent is even more disappointing, having virtually stood still over the four years at 48-49 per cent, against a 60 per cent target. This represents an annual improvement rate of 0.25 per cent, but the figure must grow by 3.7 per cent a year by 2000 if the target is to be achieved.

Professor John Ward, chairman of the Ascett, says these level III targets are "a vital competitive measure", and progress is particularly disappointing given the investment in workforce training in recent years.

By contrast, the number of employees holding vocational qualifications at the more advanced level IV has edged up to stand at 27 per cent, within reach of the 30 per cent target.

The final target, showing commitment to training by employers using the yardstick of the Investors in People (IIP) award, reveals an even bigger challenge. Only 17 per cent of privately run companies with more than 200 employees have won IIP recognition, well short of the 70 per cent target.

In a generally pessimistic foreword to the report, Professor Ward said progress at school level had been "very creditable". But the attempt to improve skill levels, to bring career advancement, improved living standards and national economic success, would be doomed "without a learning culture in the workplace".

The recent Scottish Office paper on lifelong learning agreed there was "cause for concern" and announced consultations on new lifelong learning targets. Existing targets, the paper said, were "endorsed rather than owned" by the Government.

The new targets will stick by the three existing measures for the number of young people and of the workforce qualified to level III and above, and for companies of different sizes achieving IIP status. But there will be a new target for reducing the number of adults with no qualifications.

The Government believes that its lifelong learning policy, which brings together the disparate elements for the first time backed by significant funding, "will address many of the barriers that prospective learners have faced in the past", stimulating them to gain or add to their qualifications.

The Scottish Office intends to set up a new committee to advise ministers on progress towards the new targets.

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