How will the cards fall?

2nd January 2015 at 00:00

On 26 November, the Scottish government presented its legislative programme for the next year, giving us the first clues about its broad direction of travel under Nicola Sturgeon's leadership. The next day, the Smith commission published its proposals on further devolution.

Much uncertainty remains in the wake of these two important events but allow me to speculate on issues that could - or should - arise.

With its stated desire to enhance the focus on skills, including tougher modern apprenticeship targets and very demanding aims around access to higher education for those from deprived communities, it seems likely that the government is open to ideas in these areas.

However, the modesty of the Smith proposals constrains the government in an important area: it is not going to be given powers to abolish or amend the 16-hour rule, which restricts the amount of time the unemployed can study for. This will be disappointing to many. But it should not limit the government's ambitions to do more - ministers will just have to use a little imagination.

What about a thorough pedagogical review of the post-school sector, for example? This could help policymakers assess how to assist the unemployed in maximising their engagement in learning.

I have already argued that the government should press ahead with implementing its manifesto commitments on new types of apprenticeships. This is something that skills minister Roseanna Cunningham could usefully consider in meeting the stringent new targets in this area.

In terms of matters relating to our standing within the European Union, the Smith commission has confirmed that all aspects of foreign policy remain reserved to Westminster. As a result, it may be appropriate for education secretary Angela Constance to set up a working group to address concerns over European-funded programmes ("Continental drift", 28 November).

We should not forget, either, that colleges deliver higher education too. Indeed, many of our new, merged colleges are developing their engagement in HE, including collaborating more closely with universities. The education secretary could therefore also consider asking the Scottish Funding Council to establish a joint college-university group to advise how best to tackle ambitious access targets for 2020.

Finally, the Smith commission has chosen not to devolve corporation tax. This may be optimistic but perhaps the Scottish government - in partnership with colleges - could press the UK government to review the type of relief given to corporations engaging in education and training activities.

It may be that this time of uncertainty is a good period for thoroughly reviewing our approaches to post-school education and skills.

Roger Mullin is an honorary professor at the University of Stirling and an adviser on post-16 educational reform

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