Labour's flagship training initiative should not let education get in the way of jobs, says a new study. Neil Munro reports.
COLLEGES and other training organisations have been reminded sharply that the Government's flagship New Deal initiative is about finding people jobs.
A study by HMI and the national enterprise bodies of the full-time education and training option under the New Deal points out that it is the largest of the four options, reflecting concern in official circles that it may be seen as a "soft option" chosen by young people who do not want jobs.
The New Deal was conceived as a measure to reduce youth unemployment among 18 to 24- year-olds as well as the costs and social exclusion associated with it. The scheme was later extended to the long-term unemployed aged 25-plus, lone parents and musicians.
Latest figures to the end of August show just over 9,000 young people started on full-time education and training under the New Deal, which is 37 per cent of the total taking up options since the programme began in January 1998.
This compares with 22 per cent who went into subsidised employment (the other two routes are placements with the voluntary sector and with the environmental task force). Of the 59,000 total who signed up by the end of August, 28,000 found work, of whom 17,500 were in unsubsidised jobs.
The study acknowledges that those who take up full-time education and training do become more employable. Not only are they given job-related skills but they also benefit from work experience and are introduced to "a more structured routine". But the report says the option's success is limited by the high proportion of young people who leave early; half of those who start the programme fail to complete it, a figure which has reached 90 per cent in some cases.
The reasons for non-completion "included low motivation compounded by a range of personal problems". These include mental health problems, drug-related difficulties and some with requirements which border on special educational needs. Only a few left early to take up regular work.
The study acknowledges that New Deal students did have appropriate levels of skills and qualifications "so could be judged read in educational terms". But more lacked core skills and interpersonal skills than mainstream students, and were likely to be more reluctant learners. Many also lacked self-confidence and had low self-esteem.
The report says these problems of attitude and motivation underline the importance of assessing students carefully when they arrive and giving them the guidance and support they need afterwards. The screening process could point to the unsuitability of full-time education and training for many of the young people passed on from the "gateway" induction period, according to the report.
The jobs message is further underlined in the report's recommendation that colleges and others should pay more attention to employment as "the key success measure" and put more emphasis on targeted job-seeking. Job search activity should begin as early in the course as possible.
There has always been a tension in colleges about whether they should be judged according to student success rates in completing their courses or landing a job which prevents them finishing their courses.
Funding for the New Deal has been changed significantly to emphasise the importance of the employment route: 20 per cent of the money colleges receive is paid out if the student gets a job while they get a further 10 per cent if he or she completes the course; this reverses the proportions paid initially.
Ken Neades, head of student support at Dundee College which was involved in the initial pathfinder piloting of New Deal, said colleges accept that New Deal students are there principally to use education as a route into employment. "I would say colleges are reconciled to the fact that that is the key test," he said. "But I am glad to see that the report reinforces the importance of appropriate initial assessment and guidance. These are critical if the young people concerned are to get anything out of being at college."
In what the college believes may be a first, Dundee has linked up with the local employment service which helps to fund a student employment officer, Gail Finlayson, who matches students to local job vacancies. One of her key tasks is to ensure that New Deal students find work as quickly as possible.