Scottish Enterprise has been forced to defend Skillseekers against charges of inconsistency, reports Neil Munro.
OFFICIALS from Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Executive defended the Skillseekers training programme for school-leavers when they appeared before MSPs last week.
Anxious to avoid charges of complacency, Robert Crawford, chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, accepted that they had to do much more, particularly in tracking youngsters systematically to find out what happens to them after they leave the programme and in clearing up drop-out rates.
The agencies were summoned by the Parliament's audit committee following a value-for-money report from the National Audit Office, which found wide variations in the achievement of vocational qualifications in Skillseekers programmes across the country.
The report said there was consistent failure to hit targets for the higher level three VQs, essential to the Government's aim of having 20,000 Skillseekers enrolled as modern apprentices by 2003.
The NAO report says that up to three-quarters of trainees would have received some training anyway, whether the programme existed or not.
Asked by Andrew Welsh, the committee's SNP convener, whether Scottish Enterprise was getting any benefits for its expenditure, Mr Crawford pointed to survey figures showing that only 39 per cent of companies said they would otherwise have trained their recruits to a VQ standard, while 60 per cent said if expenditure on Skillseekers was halved they would either reduce or abandon their involvement.
The NAO report said around half of those on the programme had not achieved a VQ three years after they started - the equivalent of pound;14 million being spent with nothing to show for it. Pressed by the committee, Eddie Frizzell, head of the Executive's Enterprise and Lifelong Learning division, said he did not know whether this was money wasted or represented a reasonable attainment.
"Is 100 per cent reasonable or should it be 80 per cent? I'd like to see it larger, but when you consider that 12,000 Skillseekers are coming out with a VQ against half that at the beginning of the period covere by the NAO report, progress is being made." Mr Crawford said that in 1981 only 18 per cent of youth trainees were achieving a VQ; now it is 50 per cent.
Evelyn McCann, director of learning, enterprise and inclusion at Scottish Enterprise, said they had no authority to prevent people leaving Skillseekers. She added that 75 per cent of young people were in a job while training and 72 per cent of those stayed in a job afterwards. "So something is happening during training which is making these young people employable," she said.
Brian Adam, an SNP member of the committee, wondered why Scottish Enterprise had set a target of 50 per cent of VQ achievement within the next three years "when you're already there". Mr Crawford replied that there would always be variations across Scotland because of different economic circumstances and variations in the commitment of young people.
But he pledged to look at whether the effectiveness of local enterprise companies was a factor in the variation of Skillseekers' performance, although he suspected the differing opportunities for work and training, along with the motivation of young people,were more likely explanations.
MSPs were also told repeatedly that Skillseekers was "demand-led" and that its success is affected by the fact that the enterprise agencies are obliged to implement the Government's youth training guarantee to all 16 and 17-year olds, which means they have to take on board youngsters with widely varying abilities. Mr Frizzell also pointed out the strong competition from more youngsters staying on at school and moving into college or university.
Mrs McCann said the one in five of the 140,000 school-leavers who typically join Skillseekers each year would not therefore be the highest achievers and that has to be taken into account in setting targets. She revealed that there had been a drop in trainee ability levels over the past four to five years and that this affected achievement targets.
Mr Frizzell said that for those reasons it would be unrealistic to apply rigid targets, such as VQ achievement or continuous employment, in judging the success of the programme.