Colleges in Scotland are likely to be in the front line to deliver the revised education and training targets the Government has just begun to review south of the border.
Stephanie Young, director of the Advisory Scottish Council for Education and Training Targets, confirmed the Scottish Office would be issuing a consultation document following one published for England in December. The paper is likely to coincide with the Scottish Office proposals for lifelong learning expected towards the end of March (now relegated from White Paper commitments to a less specific consultation document following Treasury intervention).
At the heart of the overhaul is expected to be an action plan aimed at raising educational participation and achievement among the 16-19 age-group. International studies have repeatedly highlighted the UK's poor record in education and training, particularly in the acquisition of vocational qualifications. This was confirmed in the most recent study by the Government's skills audit.
Ms Young believes Scotland is ahead of England, particularly in setting targets for schools and in the simplified way targets and levels are described. The English proposals envisage a reduction in the number of targets from six to four, making them "clear and memorable". Scotland has five - two for young people, two for the workforce and Investors in People for organisations.
Ms Young says colleges are already working well with people pursuing level III qualifications. "There is a direct relationship and they can see their contribution quite clearly."
The purpose of reviewing the targets is "to make a connection between the strategy and what we are measuring. We have to look at participation rates, for example, because we don't really know whether we are attracting people into education and training. In relation to the Campaign for Learning, we are beginning to look at the notion of propensity for learning, the factors that inhibit and attract."
The review is also a recognition of the fact that only 49 per cent of the workforce have a level III qualification compared with the 60 per cent target for the year 2000, and the annual rate of progress is below what is required.
The English proposals suggest the deadline for meeting the targets should be postponed from 2000 to 2002. The Scottish Office is likely to endorse that. Glasgow, at the bottom of the qualifications tables, has gone further and last summer announced a postponement until 2004. The city believes this will give it time to set up an employee development project to raise workforce qualifications to level III.
Alistair Tyre, principal at Langside College, says: "The difficulty with the ASCETT targets at the moment is that they are Scottish wide and therefore difficult to disaggregate to put them into a Glasgow context. This would help us look at the provision we should be making to ensure appropriate skills are delivered to our communities."
The last government came in for criticism for a hands-off approach, setting targets and strategies but not answering the question: how do we get from here to there? Ms Young is encouraged by Labour's more proactive intentions. The English document pledges an action plan to back up targets which are "clear and memorable, widely owned, focused on goals with which people identify and which they support".
ASCETT has long argued for a strategic approach. Miss Young says: "We have no executive authority to enforce the targets. However, if we stay advisory, then we stay independent and the council is determined to remain independent. But there is a need for someone to make decisions."
Both Mr Tyre and Ms Young are strong advocates of proper labour market information to ensure targets and qualifications are relevant. "We are saying that there should be a key group of employers interviewed on a regular basis about the changes they perceive," Ms Young said.
Mr Tyre says it is not good enough to rely on national targets or Government statistics. "We use the Strathclyde Labour Intelligence Monitoring System and find it extremely good because it focuses on the original Strathclyde area and is broken down into Glasgow itself and into the ward areas within the city. We know who is unemployed in those areas and that allows us to plan appropriately to make sure these people get access and opportunity to undertake education and training."