The most important reform is of perceptions

6th June 2014 at 01:00

This week we saw the long-awaited publication of the final report by the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce, better known as the Wood Commission.

As expected, the report sets out an ambitious blueprint for how Scotland can more effectively prepare young people for the world of work, and enable a smoother journey from school into vocational training and then on to the workplace (see pages 8-10).

In its report, the commission recommends much closer cooperation between schools and colleges. It also calls for employers to work more closely with the education sector, and suggests a set of measures to encourage employers to take on apprentices.

Any move that ensures fewer young people end up in a dead-end career, or one that is not right for them, surely has to be a step in the right direction. Many of these measures will be welcomed by young people and educationalists alike.

The government, too, seems positive. Angela Constance, secretary for training, youth and women's employment, assured audiences at two conferences last month that it "stands ready" to take the review forward and would do so with "as much pace as we can".

But another important factor that will seriously affect how successful these measures can be is at play, and that is embedded cultural prejudice. Many people still see apprenticeships and vocational training as an option only for those who did not do particularly well at school or who could not get the grades for university. How many parents of high-achieving children dream of seeing them complete an engineering apprenticeship? How many teachers of straight-A students recommend that they consider vocational training?

Coming as I do from Germany, where vocational education is a pillar of the economy, I worry about the ongoing determination in Scotland to get as many young people as possible into university, and to see any alternative as a failure.

What is a young person likely to gain from struggling through four more years of study if they might have done better in the workplace, earning a steady wage and ending up with a qualification? Especially considering that many highly trained former apprentices can expect to earn higher salaries and have better job prospects than graduates.

Constance is right when she says that a "hearts and minds campaign" is required to support any reforms. Without that, initiatives to improve vocational training in Scotland can take us only so far. Making it on to the best training schemes and apprenticeship programmes needs to be something young people aspire to and dream of. And to make that a reality, we have to make sure that Scotland's vocational training is of a world-class standard - and to change the way we all perceive it.

Sadly, the latter part of that statement is a far bigger challenge than the structural changes that will follow the commission's recommendations. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

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