SCOTTISH Enterprise has ordered a clampdown on its local enterprise companies going public in responding to last week's Skillseekers report from the National Audit Office.
The NAO, which is responsible to the Westminster Parliament for scrutinising public spending, found that achievement of vocational qualifications in the flagship training programme for 16 to 24-year-olds varied widely across the local enterprise companies in southern Scotland.
The number of awards at the higher level 3 was also consistently less than expected. The report said many of the 140,000 youngsters who started out in the programme between 1995 and 1999 would have received training with employers anyway.
Attempts by The TESS to seek explanations from the LECs as to why there should be such wide variations in VQ attainment were met with a party line that the NAO had reported nationally to Parliament and the response would come nationally when Scottish Enterprise gives evidence to the Scottish Parliament's audit committee on April 4.
The audit found that VQ achievement in 1998-99 ranged from 74 per cent in Scottish Borders to 39 per cent in Lanarkshire, the Lothians, MorayBadenochStrathspey, and Glasgow. The target for the 13 LECs in the Scottish Enterprise area is that only a half of trainees in 2000-01 should have achieved a VQ within three years of starting their programme.
The LECs told the NAO that Skillseekers were most likely to leave their programmes before getting a VQ in areas where other higher paid jobs were available; the Borders' apparently "superior" position may therefore reflect its economic downturn.
The companies also explained that training places did not always match up to what trainees wanted, which could affect achievement rates. The figures mean that up to pound;14 million is being spent on Skillseeker trainees who end up with nothing to show for the investment.
The NAO accepts that not all trainees will achieve qualifications, but its report notes that "the achievement of VQs is an importantelement of Skillseekers and the output efficiency of expenditure is therefore maximised when all trainee starts lead to a VQ".
The issue is not all to do with money, however. The drive to push up achievements, particularly to the all-important VQ level 3, is one of the Government's many target-setting initiatives for education and training - in particular that there should be 20,000 modern apprenticeships in Scotland for VQs at level 3 or above by 2003.
The record so far shows that during the four years examined by the NAO, the LECs failed to reach their level 3 achievement targets in every year, but exceeded their level 2 targets. In 1998-99, for example, the LECs aimed for 4,420 VQs at level 3 or above and achieved 4,157 while there were 8,336 level 2 awards against a target of 8,332, although these were much narrower gaps than before.
The NAO says underachievement of the higher level awards is "a concern" since these are "an important indicator of the addition to the skills stock in an area". Level 3 qualifications are defined as involving "mostly complex and non-routine" activities covering occupations from joiner to office administrator.
The report also noted, from Scottish Enterprise's own follow-up of trainees, that there have been virtually no inroads made into unemployment as a result of Skillseekers: those who ended up on the dole in each of the four years from 1995 were 23 per cent, 21 per cent, 22 per cent and 23 per cent respectively, although 27 per cent stayed in the same job and another 22 per cent were in a different job.
Scottish Enterprise's statement sidesteps all these criticisms. It notes that there has been "considerable progress" in delivering VQs for young people at a time when Scottish Enterprise expenditure had fallen by pound;25 million in three years. Seven out of 10 Skillseekers are in employment while training, and 80 per cent of employers and trainees rated Skillseekers as good or very good, the statement added.
The agency also notes the National Audit Office's comment that some training would have been provided by employers anyway without Skillseekers, but says this would not necessarily have been towards a VQ.