SKILLS FOR Work courses have been given a strong endorsement by pupils, local authorities and staff delivering the vocational programme, according to an evaluation of the first year pilot by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.
But while 98.2 per cent of youngsters said they had learnt about working with others and 97.8 per cent said they enjoyed the courses, local authorities have raised concerns about long-term funding of the programme, due to be expanded this year.
Although largely positive, the review of the first year of the programme flags up worries that there may be insufficient capacity in colleges to accommodate S3-4 pupils who want to take the courses.
It also highlights difficulties where schools do not operate a common timetable. This, says the report, has resulted in cases of pupils missing other subjects in order to attend college, lecturers struggling to complete delivery of courses when pupils are withdrawn to sit examinations or go on study leave, and pupils having difficulties with transport from the school to college.
"These are not new issues, but there was recognition that they need to be addressed if Skills for Work courses are to remain sustainable in the long term," it says.
The courses, aimed at pupils in S3-4, give practical experience in construction, early education and childcare, financial services, and sport and recreation at either Intermediate 1 or 2. They also offer core skills such as communication and working with others, and are the first qualifications to emerge from A Curriculum for Excellence.
The evaluation of their first year shows that 94.7 per cent of the pupils surveyed said they had learnt about what happens in the workplace, 92.9 per cent had learnt to review their own work, and 94.7 per cent had learnt about skills and attitudes employers want.
Gill Stewart, depute director for national qualifications at the SQA, says the courses offer a different approach. As well as the practical, experiential element, they were also trying to promote reflective learning.
"For example, in terms of employability skills, the young people would do an assessment of themselves at the beginning of the course, and then part of the way through the course they might ask others to assess their skills - either their peers or college lecturers," she said.
Assessment is internal and the quality of the courses is checked by external verifiers.
Dr Stewart warns against assuming that every vocational area is solely about skills and practical experience. Areas such as early years education require the acquisition of knowledge and candidates have to complete written as well as more hands-on work.
Another concern to emerge in the evaluation is the selection process for candidates. The report says development managers and external verifiers reported that some schools experienced difficulties with pupils who lacked motivation or whose behaviour in class was inappropriate.
"Deliverers expressed the view that this may have been due to, in some instances, not all partners being involved in the selection of candidates,"
the report stated. "In exceptional circumstances, candidates have had to be withdrawn from classes."
One development manager called for colleges to have access to candidate background information, such as medical issues, behaviour reports, and attendance records.
From the start, however, the Scottish Executive emphasised that the Skills for Work courses should be seen as "a positive choice to access specialist provision in colleges" and should not be regarded as "alternative provision for pupils with additional support needs, or for disaffected or disengaged pupils".
There are examples of academic pupils interested in a future career in teaching or early years support opting for the course, so they can gain practical experience which may help them gain a college or university place.
New courses which will be offered in the course of the year include hairdressing, rural skills,engineering, hospitality and health. Existing courses will also be offered at enhanced levels.
Laura Shishodia, a pupil at one of Edinburgh's independent schools, St George's School for Girls, is taking an Intermediate 2 Skills for Work in early education and childcare.
"It's useful because I'm going on to do sociology an anthropology next year," she says. "The course is brilliant - you get time to play with kids, chat to them and learn what a real working environment's like. Considering I don't know what I'd like to do after university, it's also going to be useful if I want to go into teaching or nursery care. It's a basis for learning for life and how life's going to be after school."
Robert Collison, a pupil at Claremont High in East Kilbride, gives another perspective: "It's good to come to college because you get to do more practical stuff than you'd do in school. It gives you more of a chance to learn more about trades."