In recent months, considerable prominence has been given to the fact that Scotland has a high proportion of young people not in education, employment or training, known as NEETs.
Some 35,000 16 to 19-year-olds are in this category. Of those, 20,000 are registered unemployed, 4,000 are sick or disabled, 4,000 are looking after family and a further 7,000 are "inactive", taking gap years or acting as carers. Put another way, one in every seven (14 per cent) of 16 to 19-year-olds has left school but failed to get a job, enter further education or undertake work-based training.
It has always been the case that some young people take time out from education or work but, for many young Scots, it threatens to be a way of life. The question is, do we in Scotland suffer any more or less than other countries from this massive waste in human potential? In all countries, the economy is a key client of an education system which needs to impart skills not only to the next generation but also to improve the ability and participation of this generation.
In England, the total number of 16 to 18-year-old NEETs at the end of 2005 was estimated at 220,000, almost 11 per cent of the 16-19 cohort. By comparison with OECD countries - the world's 30 richest - we again fail abysmally. Remarkably, Scotland has a higher proportion of NEETs than any other OECD country.
The NEET problem is not a recent phenomenon; it has existed since the early 1990s. Belatedly, we are only now beginning to address the issue by realising the importance of getting growing numbers of young people off benefits, back into education and training and thereby benefiting the economy.
The Scottish Executive launched its strategy to tackle this growing problem earlier this year. Interestingly, it differs markedly from the strategy employed in England. In Scotland, the executive urged the private sector to get behind its initiative. A new strategy, More Choices - More Chances, will concentrate on providing vocational courses in schools and additional careers advice. Careers Scotland will receive additional resources while the Prince's Trust xlerate, which prepares young people for the world of work, is to be extended to cover 100 schools. (See Scotland Plus, pages 2-3).
In Scotland, assistance in tackling the problem has also come from the Scottish Funding Council. Direct intervention in support of improvements in the supply of non-advanced programmes is another strand in the executive's overall strategy. Areas characterised by high numbers of NEETs tend to be the same areas that suffer from low participation rates in further education and training.
Since nearly half of Scotland's NEETs live in five areas - Glasgow, Edinburgh, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire and Fife - the funding council has allocated additional money to colleges in Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire to address low participation.
In England, a more radical and interventionist approach has been adopted in meeting the needs of particular cohorts of young people who might be disadvantaged, underachieving or failing to participate in education and training.
Strategic area reviews, unheard of in Scotland, have been common-place since 2003 and have been conducted throughout the country, including all the major cities. Area reviews have assessed where there are gaps in programmes that new providers, partnerships or a different mix of curriculum might fill. They have concluded with an outline of what is needed in terms of "new" provision to meet increased learner numbers, adjust the vocational-academic balance in an area or offer better provision.
Strategic area reviews also reached judgments on the extent to which the courses and programmes on offer in schools, colleges and work-based providers met the particular needs of young people. All too often, particular areas were characterised by higher level course provision when the attainment profile of young people would have benefited more from Access to Foundation and Intermediate level courses.
Competitions for new 16-19 provision are being held where a need has been identified for 200 or more new 16-19 places to meet basic needs. The Learning and Skills Council (the single organisation for learning and skills in England) publishes notices in local and national newspapers specifying the need, including the geographical or target group area to be covered and the range of curriculum provision required.
Stakeholder panels in each area meet to consider the proposals, assess them against criteria including quality, diversity to ensure curriculum breadth, learner choice, affordability and value for money - then make recommendations.
A new 16-19 capital fund has been set up to support these initiatives. It is anticipated that many applications will come as a result of reorganisations at local level, arising from strategic reviews and the 16-19 competition process.
Recently, the Confederation of British Industry launched a vitriolic attack on the state of Scotland's education system, when it claimed that schools are failing to engage with many young people, leaving them short of being "work ready". In Scotland, the executive is responding by increasing the capacity of schools to offer vocational education.
The approach in England is to make FE institutions more specialised and to fund a greater number of work-based and college programmes for 14 to 16-year-old pupils. Increasingly, new learning pathways are being developed that provide school students with the skills, knowledge and experience that help them progress to work. Study in the classroom is routinely mixed with opportunities to train at college or learn in the workplace.
Giving opportunities to pupils to train in the workplace or at a college is more likely to motivate young people. Longer term, undoubtedly a growing proportion of the vocational courses and programmes will be concentrated in those institutions most capable of delivering it effectively.
Young people need to have a choice of what and where to study. Initiatives launched in Scotland fall short in terms of being able to access programmes tailored to meeting the needs of individuals.
There is a requirement for higher levels of investment and more radical changes to the delivery of vocational education and training and to the qualifications on offer, if we are to stimulate the interest of young people, offer new routes to success and, importantly, end the problem of disengagement.
Jim Donaldson is an education consultant and was formerly chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council in England