If a commission heads in a wise direction, I'll follow

8th February 2013 at 00:00
The experts attempting to help Scotland's young workforce should be given the benefit of the doubt

When government announces reviews or establishes commissions or sets up working parties, it is understandable if the response is cautious. Often these are acts to mask indecision or to reduce the political heat in the hope that, by the time any conclusions or recommendations start to come in, life will have moved on. Sometimes, they can be a sensible way forward and that seems to be the case with the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce.

As part of the post-16 reform process, there were to be commissions and there may still be. There was to be one focused on the role of our colleges. That would have been interesting, though the time to do that sort of thing would have been before, rather than during, a reform process. However, some coherent perspective on expectations of our colleges would still be welcome.

There was to be a review on "vocational education", a term that is troublesome and, increasingly, belongs to a different age. Any such review process would have spent much of its time determining what is and what is not "vocational" and speculated about how best to put young people into one box or another. There might have been scholarly delight in such a process, but ultimately it would have proven to be sterile. It might have concluded that life and work in the 21st century is complicated.

There is some regressive language used in the announcement of the commission - the limiting term "training" is becoming more fashionable. Such language does have the virtue of familiarity. The key question is how our learning system works with learners as they prepare to make a full contribution to their world of work and, ultimately, the nation's economic welfare. As such, it is an issue for all learners and for the system as a whole.

For many reasons, the formation of the commission is encouraging. There are only a few members and that will help get the work done. These are excellent people, chosen for their experience and expertise and not known for their disposition to idle away their time on government committees. They are well respected within their communities and will be influential as recommendations come through. It is good that the announcement stresses the experience of all members as employers, for it is that experience which needs to come to the fore.

Curriculum for Excellence is a clear and vital reference point for the work of the commission. Employer engagement with these reforms needs to be strengthened as the reforms progress. It is not that employers haven't been involved to date; as the time for certification draws ever closer, they should be paying increased attention and be in a better position to make a productive contribution. Curriculum for Excellence is entering the employer radar.

Engagement with employers is one of the most challenging aspects of any learning system. A huge amount of effort goes in to ensuring their interests are met. Much of this work goes on as a matter of course, without fuss, as part of the fabric of our system. Many employers make very significant contributions to the system and the learner experience is all the richer for that. Again, much of this work is unheralded; it is just what you do as part of the community.

It is usually helpful to be clear about the basis for engagement with employers. It is complex. One perspective is that employers are consumers of learning system output. Undoubtedly they are and there is evidence from surveys commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council, that they are contented consumers. They are also noisy consumers, ready to express their dissatisfaction with the product. The learning system needs to pay attention and do what it can.

I recall a meeting with the managing director of a very reputable company. We listened carefully as he recounted his perceptions of the shortcomings of education. Warming to his task, he went on to give an account of how he had gone down to the local college to meet with the principal and let him know in no uncertain terms of the poor service he was providing. The principal in question was sitting next to the managing director, but he was far too polite to point out that he could not recall receiving such feedback which, had it occurred, he would have surely remembered.

The commission provides an opportunity to examine that part of our system where employers make direct contributions. It is hardly a new notion: employers provide, despite bureaucratic demands, work experience opportunities for school children and work placements for young people on college courses; they give their time in many formal and informal settings as part of processes ensuring curriculum relevance; there are examples of employers being involved in delivery as part of Skills for Work provision; they talk freely and directly about workplace demands and work well with providers in apprenticeship programmes. There is much to build upon and strengthen.

The minister has expectations of the commission "to truly address youth unemployment". It is good that we have such ambition for our young people. It is good that we are taking some time to look across the system in our search for improvement and that we are building on our reform programme. We should look forward to their recommendations and trust there will be something in there for everyone, including employers.

John McCann is a freelance Education consultant and continues to progress college contributions.

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