The official in charge of implementing the Government's Pounds 3.5 billion welfare-to-work programme in Scotland refused to be drawn this week on the amount which is to be earmarked for the crucial guidance element of the "new deal" initiative.
The 25,000 unemployed young people aged 18-24 who are expected to benefit from the Government's flagship policy for each of the next five years will be entitled to up to four months on pre-employment guidance and support, including taster courses and work experience, before being allocated a job or training place.
Launching a Scotland-wide consultation on the design and delivery of the programme in Glasgow on Monday, Brian Wilson, the Education and Industry Minister, placed strong emphasis on the introductory "gateway" period as a quality feature of the policy which would distinguish it from previous attempts to tackle youth unemployment. Each participant would have the same case worker throughout.
Mr Wilson hoped the word "scheme", which had given past reforms a bad name, would be "consigned to the equivalent of the swear box".
The new deal is worth Pounds 300 million in Scotland over the next five years, but Alan Brown, director of the Employment Service in Scotland which will match youngsters to placements, could not say how much funding the gateway process would receive. "It will not be ungenerously funded" was as much as Mr Brown was prepared to say when pressed by Dermot Dick, chair of the Association of Careers Services in Scotland.
Mr Dick pointed out that counselling and mentoring were "very people intensive". One informed estimate circulating at the conference suggested that the gateway period would attract funding of Pounds 250 per person, the equivalent of Pounds 15 a week which it was claimed would barely support more than an hour with a guidance professional.
The conference heard other concerns about the relationship between the four options available under the programme, and whether all the options would be available everywhere. Young people unemployed for more than six months will be given the choice of placements with an employer, on environmental tasks, with the voluntary sector or in full-time education or training.
Ed Weeple, head of the Scottish Office further and higher education division who chairs the new deal management team, said ministers' main priority was to get people into jobs in the private sector. "They take the view that this must not be seen as yet another public sector subsidy programme," Mr Weeple said.
Representatives of the voluntary sector complained that this could lead to placements with them being regarded as "the sink option". Mr Wilson said he was "acutely aware" of that perception which underlined again the importance of having quality provision throughout the programme. Outcomes must be measured.
The further education sector expects to find rich pickings from the initiative, especially those in the main jobs blackspots of Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Dundee. Michael Leech, principal of Stevenson College in Edinburgh, is the sole educational representative on the new deal's Scottish advisory task force which is chaired by Ian Robinson, the chief executive of Scottish Power.
In addition to the expansion of full-time education and training places, which is largely aimed at those without qualifications, the other three options require youngsters to be released for training which will attract a payment of Pounds 750 per head. College taster courses may also be offered during the gateway period.
The emphasis on certificated training was welcomed by Iain Ovens, principal of Dundee College. He will be involved at an early stage as Tayside becomes one of the 12 "pathfinder" areas which will act as a testbed for the programme throughout the UK from January.
Mr Ovens supported the Education Minister's view that the so-called "fifth option" of doing nothing while claiming benefit was not an option. Those refusing a placement will face the loss of state benefits.
Mr Wilson said he did not believe there were large numbers of such people. Mr Ovens agreed, saying his college found the numbers enrolling through the Skillseekers and Training for Work programmes "are very good students, indistinguishable from the general student population".
The Scottish Qualifications Authority is to adapt its portfolio to certify both employability skills and work experience. "We have the potential to meet the new deal requirements," Dennis Gunning, the authority's director of development, stated.
The programme comes into force throughout the country in April for 18 to 24-year-olds. Those aged over 25 who have been out of work for more than two years are to be offered jobs with training from next June.
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