The skills system is to be simplified and driven by better-informed employers. These are the key pledges in the Scottish Government's "refreshed" skills strategy, which was approved by Parliament last week.
Although the plans received a mixed reception - and hardly any media coverage - Skills and Lifelong Learning Minister Keith Brown was in no doubt about their significance. He declared in a parliamentary debate last Thursday his ambition "for a skills system that is driven by what the labour market most needs, rather than by what the skills system can most easily deliver".
He said the commitments "will help to achieve that by placing greater focus on working together with employers better to understand and to assess the skills that they need to be successful, and by ensuring that the supply of skills can be responsive to those needs".
One of the key ingredients in simplifying the system will be a new strategy for the careers service, to be published by the end of December. The Government says it remains committed to a universal careers service, but it wants to see more intensive support for those that need it most, better use of new technology to provide information, and a new framework to develop people's "career management skills".
The Government's strategy acknowledges that "some employers still have difficulty engaging with the skills system," particularly small businesses. Skills Development Scotland is developing a "skills gateway" for the key sectors of the economy to try to overcome this.
The integration of job centres and skills services, which is taking place throughout Scotland in August, is also seen as "crucial" in simplifying the landscape. Mr Brown went so far as to suggest, in an intervention during last week's debate, that there could be complete integration, with the functions of Jobcentre Plus taken over by a Scottish-led consortium.
The latest skills strategy has the blessing of some of the leading players. Janet Lowe, the former college principal who chairs the joint skills committee of the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland, defended the "refreshed" strategy. "The original strategy was right and we don't need a new one, but one that is reinforced, updated and made relevant to today's circumstances," she said.
Alison Hay, a Liberal Democrat councillor who is the spokesperson on regeneration and sustainable development for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said it supported the strategy which it had been involved in drafting.
But other politicians, including Councillor Hay's fellow Liberal Democrats in Parliament, were less charitable.
A Lib Dem motion noted that "the priority given by the Scottish Government to the new centralised skills quango, Skills Development Scotland, which has pound;22m of administrative expenses, has not added any clarity to the Scottish Government's skills agenda."
Labour's David Whitton said support for employers and simplification of the skills system were "steps in the right direction". But he added: "While Scotland's skills base has improved considerably, that has still not translated into higher productivity and economic growth. Increasing the skill levels of the labour force at all levels is the way to do that."
Elizabeth Smith, the Conservatives' spokesperson on education and lifelong learning, agreed there had been "a little progress". But she called for "a fundamental change in our thinking," not just "initiatives here and there".
Ms Smith said there had to be a radical overhaul of skills development, "just as we are planning a radical overhaul of higher education." It had to start in schools, she believed, with "a two-route system" from age 14, in which young people are able to choose either skills-focused or more academic pursuits.
Labour's Karen Whitefield, who chairs the Parliament's education committee, underlined the importance of schools in promoting skills, but her preference was for a partnership with colleges and employers.
She cited the relationship in her constituency between Caldervale High and Coatbridge and Motherwell colleges. Coatbridge College offers Higher psychology in the school and provides training in childcare, motor mechanics, hairdressing, and beauty and make-up.
Margaret Smith, for the Liberal Democrats, said it was clear from a business survey she had undertaken that many employers did not feel that the skills organisations were engaging with them properly.
"They felt that there were barriers in place and that the process was not one with which they would immediately think about engaging."
Her fellow party member, Jeremy Purves, suggested that local provision was not as streamlined as Mr Brown had implied and that changes made in 2007 had complicated it.
In his area and before the new approach, Scottish Enterprise Borders was a one-stop shop for business support, advice, skills and training. Now, Mr Purves said, schools had their careers guidance co-ordinated from an agency in Paisley, and skills were set on the basis of a Lothian and Borders area that is not the same as the Scottish Borders Council area or the operating area of Scottish Enterprise.
Mr Brown pointed out that the Government held regular "skills summits" with employers at which these issues could be thrashed out.
The nature of the skills required was also underlined by the MSPs. Labour's education spokesperson, Des McNulty, said there had to be a recognition that "single sets of skills, which might have been adequate in the past, are increasingly being replaced by multi-skilled apprenticeships".
Conservative MSP Gavin Brown commented: "There is a big prize for getting it right. A 1 per cent increase in productivity across the country would add pound;1 billion to the economy's value."
The miniser said he had no problem with the points Labour and the Conservatives made in last week's debate, but he described the Liberal Democrat amendment as "carping, pointless and negative".
- pound;1.77 billion invested in colleges and universities in 2010-11
- Income assessment thresholds for individual learning accounts raised from July 2009, allowing an extra 250,000 individuals to become eligible for funding
- More resources for colleges in areas with the greatest increases in unemployment and where the rate of unemployment among young people has risen the most
- 16+Learning Choices initiative which guarantees an offer of post-16 learning to every young person who wants it by December 2010
- Improving opportunities for young people through Curriculum for Excellence, Determined to Succeed and Skills for Work
- More support for part-time learners in higher education of pound;38 million from 2008-11; loans removed and replaced by grants
- Integration of job centres and skills services, with pilots in 21 areas being extended throughout Scotland
- Responses to redundancy through the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment (PACE) programme: a survey published earlier this month found that 63 per cent of those who had used the service were back in work or training within seven months of losing their jobs
- About 20,000 people started an apprenticeship in 2009-10, ahead of the 18,500 target; 70 per cent of leavers gained a qualification, job or moved on to a separate training programme
- Adopt an Apprentice and Safeguard an Apprentice programmes have ensured that 900 apprentices have got alternative employment or avoided redundancy
- 5,000 all-age apprenticeships introduced and a pound;1,000 incentive for up to 2,000 MA places for 16 to 17-year-olds
- A target in 2010-11 of 14,500 training places to support the unemployed and 5,000 "new flexible training opportunities" to meet the needs of businesses
- Additional 4,100 college places supported by pound;15 million in European Social Funds
- A leadership group set up to champion more effective skills use in the workplace, backed by pound;1.8m for 12 projects over three years from the Scottish Funding Council
`Funding council is slow to react'
The leading organisations that fund and promote skills development came in for criticism from MSPs in last week's parliamentary debate on the skills strategy.
Labour's David Whitton said colleges had told him of "a certain lack of flexibility" on the part of the Scottish Funding Council. He added: "Matching funding with priorities, and reducing costs by encouraging closer collaboration between higher and further education institutions and employers will bring benefits but, in many cases, the funding council is slow to react."
His party colleague, Karen Whitefield, claimed that Coatbridge and Motherwell colleges in her constituency felt there was a need to review the way in which FE funding was distributed. She claimed Lanarkshire did not get its fair share: for every pound;5 spent in Glasgow on further education, only pound;2 was spent in Lanarkshire which was similar in population size and social circumstances.
The SNP's Tricia Marwick suggested that the Scottish Funding Council and Skills Development Scotland were "sometimes behind the curve with regard to the skill sets that are needed".
Lifelong Learning Minister Keith Brown warned Westminster not to imperil the work in Scotland of the UK-wide sector skills councils, which represent the training interests of employers. If the presence of SSCs in Scotland is reduced, the minister said, "we will not hesitate to take radical and practical steps to ensure the voice of our employers is heard across the Scottish skills system".