On the right path
The youngsters in the group who are not in education, employment or training (Neet) are "Scotland's perfect storm, our hidden shame", Sir Tom Hunter said in an impassioned plea for action on Tuesday night.
He went so far as to make a controversial call for education vouchers (although he did not use the term) to be spent in a way that best suited the child, and said schools should be judged on where their pupils ended up - not on their qualifications.
Speaking in one of the Edinburgh Lectures series, the millionaire philanthropist paid tribute to Jack McConnell, the First Minister, for pushing the Neet issue to the forefront of the education agenda. Sir Tom urged politicians not to let the cross-party consensus on the issue fall prey to bickering during the election campaign.
Mr McConnell is meeting the 12 Premier League football clubs on Monday to discuss how they can play their part in re-engaging the estimated 12,000 to 15,000 youngsters in the Neet group. One model is the learning support centres set up by both Rangers and Celtic.
The work being done to draw youngsters away from the Neet path is being spearheaded by the Smith Group, led by businessman Sir Robert Smith, and seven education authorities are involved in piloting different approaches.
But it is Sir Tom whose views carry the weight that matters: the First Minister credits the businessman with enthusing him to develop enterprise education. His influence was clearly demonstrated again at his lecture when he was joined on the platform by Mr McConnell, who introduced him, and by John Elvidge, the most senior civil servant at the Scottish Executive, who chaired the proceedings.
Sir Tom told these two key figures to allow headteachers to be "leaders and risk-takers" to enable them to deal with the Neet issue.
"Some local authorities must do more to allow headteachers the freedom they need to deliver," he said. "Instead, I think the system grinds down the vast opportunities presented in A Curriculum for Excellence. The executive's education department must do far more to enthuse and enable that process."
Sir Tom said nobody should care where the best provision is. "We should care about what's best for the young person," he commented. "One size most certainly does not fit all."
He referred to a programme in his native Ayrshire where a mechanics course for young people was vastly over-subscribed, "despite being in the back of beyond and in the middle of an estate". Youngsters who might have been at risk of taking the Neet path and skipping school were actually turning up in the evenings, because there was no capacity during the day.
"The solutions are there," he continued. "What if you gave the educational budget to the child and let him or her, with the careers officer's and teacher's support, decide what best suited them? Scottish education needs to offer not just two paths, but many paths towards a successful life."
Sir Tom declared: "Throw out the rule books and the heavy and deep bureaucracy that governs our schools, set a workable framework, give them a budget and let them get on with it.
"How do we evaluate that? How about end-user destination? Not qualification, destination."
He said if Govan High in Glasgow, with all its challenges, can ensure 100 per cent of its pupils go to university, college, a job or the voluntary sector, "it's gold watch time".
Sir Tom rejected any suggestion that additional money was the root of the solution. He said that, at an estimated cost in taxation loss and benefits of pound;100,000 for each youngster not in education, employment or training, fixing the problem would put another pound;1.5 billion back in the Government's coffers every year - the equivalent of the Scottish Funding Council's entire annual budget.
The Hunter Foundation, Sir Tom's philanthropic vehicle, is to put more of his millions behind a programme to talent spot and support the next generation of Scotland's leaders.
Sir Tom made the announcement during his lecture, rejecting concerns it would be branded elitist. It was time to stop leading with "the hand of mediocrity", he said.
Details of the start-up phase would be unveiled in a few weeks' time.