A SCOTTISH project that has had growing success in bringing disadvantaged young people into training, and persuading them to stay, is still awaiting Government endorsement.
As ministers launched a major overhaul of the post-16 education and training scene south of the border this week, Fife's innovative Fast-Trac initiative seems to have come up with some of the answers.
Since Fast-Trac was established in 1995 the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in training or non-advanced FE has trebled, the number of those receiving training while employed has doubled to 75 per cent and the number with recognised vocational qualifications has grown threefold despite a drop in the trainee population.
Fife now has twice as many employers as in the rest of Scotland using Skillseekers as their preferred means of recruiting and training young people. The region also has the biggest proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in training in Scotland and has more achieving SVQs at level 3 than anywhere else.
But the Scottish Office is cautious. Patricia Russell of the Scottish Office Transitions to Work division told a conference on Fast-Trac in Dunfermline last week there must be "no presumption" that Fife's approach should be the model for the rest of the country.
Ms Russell is handling the Scottish Office reform proposals on 16-18s, issued for consultation in March under the title Opportunities and Choices. It is particularly concerned with those who are lost to the system - the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 young people aged 16 and 17 who are not in employment, education or training.
Those involved in the Fast-Trac experiment believe that its features must be present in any national system. Training has to be employer-led and include core skills, according to Ian McLachlan, director of company development at Fife Enterprise.
In turn this must be based on closer links between work-based learning and FE courses. Fast-Trac points to its success in articulating 40 per cent of non-advanced college courses with SVQs.
Mr McLachlan criticised the policy espoused by Scottish Enterprise which he said must "do more than produce targets for work-based training based on a narrow range of SVQs". There must be encouragement for trainees to progress from basic qualifications to degrees.
Another key ingredient in the Fast-Trac approach has been to have common funding for post-16 training. Mr McLachlan condemned the existing "segregated approach which leads to stigmatised 'scheme' labels".
The Fife system is supported by pound;3.3 million transferred from the colleges' budgets for non-advanced courses, which is pooled with the enterprise company's pound;7.6 million Skillseekers budget. This enables 3,500 young people to use Skillseekers "credit cards" to buy training while they are working or to fund an FE course.
Integration between training offered by the colleges, enterprise company and employers is the key to success, Fast-Trac enthusiasts say. Janet Lowe, principal of Lauder College, says there has been "a genuine partnership not one-sided monitoring".
The Fife proponents say an employer-led initiative allows training to respond to the labour market, persuades more employers to see the relevance of training and attracts students. Significantly, more than 90 per cent of the Fife businesses taking part have fewer than 25 employees - fulfilling another Government objective of involving small businesses.
The initiative has also seen major advances in college recruitment among 16-18s, from 600 to 1,400 over four years. While retention and achievement rates have been more variable, around 70 per cent have stayed on to gain qualifications. There is an intensive guidance regime and a system of performance funding is intended to concentrate college minds.
Ms Lowe says these are major achievements given that the students involved "have low levels of intrinsic motivation, a background of underachievement and low self-image. Some are from families experiencing three generations of unemployment." The project estimates that half of the young people it has recruited into FE would not otherwise be there.
Colleges have undergone their own fast track to learning. Out have gone "demotivating" classroom activities to which Skillseekers are introduced - often alongside adults - as soon as they come through the door. In come an early emphasis on practical skills, work placements, project-based learning and a better approach to embedding core skills.
Ms Lowe says this cannot be done without staff development in areas such as positive behavioural management which has encouraged staff to see disaffected students as "a worthwhile challenge rather than an unwelcome imposition".
Local colleges say Fast-Trac has not yet found the training holy grail. "It is not the only way to go forward," Ms Lowe says, "but it does offer a valuable contribution to the policy debate."