The Deputy Prime Minister has seen the future in Fife and believes it works. Michael Heseltine, helping to launch the Scottish education White Paper recently, announced that skills vouchers would be introduced for 16 to 18-year-old school-leavers to spend at work, college or on a training course.
The model is FAST-TRAC set up in Fife in May 1995 as a three-year pilot to draw employers into training. The mix of student choice, close employer involvement and college input gives it the edge over conventional training, according to the backers of FAST-TRAC. It extends the voucher-based Skillseekers programme.
Ian McLachlan, director of Fife Enterprise of which FAST-TRAC is a division, believes it has succeeded because employers have been given a bigger say in training young people. FAST-TRAC contracts with employers to deliver the Skillseekers programme, which replaced youth training schemes.
Although Fife Enterprise describes the initiative as being employer rather than provider-led, the voucher scheme gives purchasing power to the student. However in Fife the student or trainee will only be able to spend his or her voucher on a college course, training with an employer or other provider which has been contracted with FAST-TRAC.
The agency then releases the cash - on average Pounds 5,000 - when the young person starts and every quarter until the national qualification is achieved. Payments are also related to the student's attendance and progress during training.
Fife believes it has reaped the benefits. Some 66 per cent of trainees working with private-sector companies have employed status compared with 8 per cent on youth training, and that is despite a reduction in the number of school-leavers. Fife employers, however, had a particularly poor record of taking on YT recruits as employees.
But more than 1,000 Fife employers are now within the FAST-TRAC system compared to 570 who used youth training at its peak. The pilot also appears to be able to reach those parts which training often misses. Small companies with fewer than 25 employees make up more than 90 per cent of the businesses taking part in Fife Skillseekers.
John Paton, production manager with responsibility for training at Bridgeforth Engineering in Inverkeithing, has taken on five Skillseekers who are working towards a Modern Apprenticeship in engineering. He says the company, which makes components for the oil industry, has been helped by FAST-TRAC to access funds to train its employees to national standards. "Skillseeker Modern Apprentices can train for a career, study for a qualification and get paid all at the same time."
The four Fife colleges - Fife, Glenrothes, Lauder and Elmwood - say FAST-TRAC has been a benefit, even though the scheme uses the portion of their Scottish Office grant which would normally be devoted to non-advanced courses for 16 to 18-year-olds. This amounts to Pounds 2.3 million in the current year.
The loss of control over part of their budget caused initial unease in the colleges. But increased levels of recruitment and improved retention rates mean that they have got their money back. In fact the colleges now report that more 16 to 18-year-olds have crossed their doors than anticipated, forcing FAST-TRAC to pay out an extra Pounds 1m for places than the Scottish Office grant would have funded.
Janet Lowe, the principal of Lauder College in Dunfermline, stresses that the colleges have found FAST-TRAC a successful initiative to date.
Tom Burness, her equivalent at Glenrothes, endorses that caution, pointing out that the scheme has a number of classic pilot features which are unlikely to be replicated if the scheme goes nationwide, such as the ability to draw on extra money from the local enterprise company. The pilot has also afforded colleges a special guarantee that they would not lose more than 90 per cent of their contribution to the common funding pool.
Joyce Johnston, the principal of Fife College in Kirkcaldy, believes the integration of non-advanced FE with work-based learning is likely to be the best long-term benefit to emerge from the initiative. Ms Lowe agrees and welcomes the ability of colleges to influence the training rather than simply act as passive training providers.
The Lauder principal says she has been having increasing discussions with employers, bearing out the FAST-TRAC claim that businesses are much more directly involved in training than they used to be.
But Ms Lowe and Mr Burness believe employers could make more use of the colleges for their off-the-job training, particularly since only 5 per cent of the companies involved are able to deliver qualifications in-house.
Jack Marshall, the operations manager of FAST-TRAC, points out, however, that 60 per cent of Skillseekers attend college for training. The figure for 16 and 17-year-old Fife Skillseekers going on to FE has almost doubled over the past year to 1096; there is an estimated 30 per cent rise in the number achieving SVQ level III qualifications (the equivalent of Highers).
FAST-TRAC suggests colleges benefit, too, in having access to training as well as education budgets. "Prior to FAST-TRAC, Scottish Vocational Qualifications were the only qualifications financed. Now, where a business has a clear need for a type of training more traditionally associated with the college sector such as a Higher National Certificate programme, it is funded by FAST-TRAC. "
If nothing else, FAST-TRAC cuts out the managing agents who acted as middle men with the employer under the old YT scheme, collecting places for trainees. Fife had 50 such agents dealing with 570 employers, whereas FAST-TRAC now acts as a one-door operation for 1,000 employers.
The potential downside, according to Janet Lowe, is "volatility in recruitment which would then cause funding problems that are difficult to manage. So, while real-time funding is fine when recruitment is on the increase, it remains risky".