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Our challenge is to save the one in five

Businesses anxious about the education of new employees should put their money where their mouth is, says Sir Robert Smith

couple of weeks ago we announced the Smith Group's formation. Sir Tom Hunter had approached me with a simple question: "Robert, if the Weir Group (which I chair) produced 80 per cent good pumps and 20 per cent that were unusable, where would you be?"

He then told me of the NEET group (young people not in education, employment or training), an issue so disturbing that I agreed to help in any way I could.

This resulted in my helping to set up and chair a group to advise the First Minister and Cabinet on finding solutions to the NEET issue, as well as supporting Schools of Ambition and perhaps some broader issues.

It is easy to get depressed by statistics about the system failing 20 per cent of our children but, in reality, there is good news here. The good news is we have an identifiable problem to which we can pinpoint solutions.

Some are proven solutions and we can build upon them; other solutions need to be developed.

In order to bring solutions to bear on the problem, we all need to take responsibility for our role in this; it is not only the Smith Group's challenge, it is Scotland's.

We have a system that works well for 80 per cent of our children and, of course, we not only have to support the 20 per cent for whom it doesn't work, but improve the offering for everyone. Every child deserves exemplary support from education, health and social services but, importantly, we must integrate that support and provide it in a seamless manner.

Moreover, where change is needed or a new approach required, it is our absolute duty to make that happen with urgency. We simply cannot delay when we know another 12,000-14,000 children will shortly join the queue for a one-way ticket to nowhere meaningful.

Furthermore, we in business and industry must play our part in engaging with education to enable our young people to come through with the necessary capabilities to work not just in the private sector, but also in the public and voluntary sectors. There is little point in employers complaining about lack of qualifications unless they are prepared to do something about it.

Most importantly, we have to work with local authorities, with schools and with the Scottish Executive to embed and integrate what we know has an impact on engaging these children. Nor for that matter should we be shy about recognising that some of the system simply does not or cannot work for some of them and developing alternative opportunities.

Let me give you an example. There is evidence that points to the positive impact on children's destinations of having a careers officer permanently based in a secondary school engaging with local businesses, with pupils and with teachers. When we know a programme of intervention is having an impact on positive outcomes for NEET children across pockets of Scotland, we should endeavour to have that intervention embedded for all. Some may argue that such initiatives cost money, but they can save money over time.

Over the coming weeks, we aim to pull together a range of people, programmes and ideas to attempt to drive change for the lowest-performing 20 per cent.

Of course, this is a major issue of extraordinary proportions but, as I've said, we know where the problem is, we have some proven solutions already available and if we can all get behind driving change, then we can make huge inroads on this issue in a year.

Our group is representative of teachers, entrepreneurs, corporates, directors of education and the local authorities. We look forward to working with the delivery unit created by the First Minister as part of our agreement to focus on NEET prevention, working across the whole system.

We hope to announce several private-sector secondments, people who will work with the Scottish Executive and local authorities in the areas of education, health and social deprivation. Our activities and, indeed, the activities of that unit will be transparent, dynamic . . . and impatient.

In being transparent, we will report publicly - on a regular basis, warts and all - on delivery. This issue will not be hidden from public scrutiny.

Moreover, we aim for it not to become a political football - we must, as a nation, join together to deliver on this strategy.

We will seek to inject a speed of action into the system that will enable the customer - the child and his or her family or guardian - to benefit from a "one-stop shop" of services that will allow that child to be all that he or she can be.

We in this group stand determined to do our bit for Scotland and I hope many others will join us in this exciting and challenging endeavour.

Sir Robert Smith is chairman of the Weir Group of engineering companies.

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