Do not forget about the 50 per cent of young Scots who leave school but not for higher education
The difficulties facing the implementation of raising the school leaving age to 18 should not be used as an excuse to shirk from "bold strokes and thinking out of the box".
That was the message from Anton Colella, the former chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, who was asked by the First Minister to put some flesh on the bones of his commitment to what is officially described as "raising the age of participation in education and training".
Mr Colella's draft report, which found itself into the public arena this week, calls for "something special" to be done for the "other 50 per cent", those who do not leave school for higher education.
"There is absolutely no reason why the opportunities available to this other 50 per cent of young Scots cannot be as world-class as the opportunities available within Scotland's universities," Mr Colella says.
His package includes "clearer and attractive choices" for 14-18 year olds, including opportunities for part-time paid employment while they are at school. Under the Colella plan, the skills academies proposed by the First Minister would be the main focus for training young people for work. There would be national recognition of success in the form of a Scottish Young Apprenticeship.
He characterises this apprentice-ship scheme as "training with work", as opposed to "work with training" in the current full-time modern apprenticeship programme.
Options for pupils could begin as early as S1 with taster courses, building to more options in S3 and developing into part-time education with part-time work in S4-6. "It will be available for all pupils and will provide an opportunity for a fresh start for pupils disengaged by the end of S2 in a location outwith the school," the draft paper proposes.
Crucially, Mr Colella believes, training programmes must come under the remit of HMIE so their quality and credibility match the best of what is available for those who go into higher education.
Although his plans are in draft form, they are not expected to be greatly altered. Jack McConnell has already said he is "minded to accept them all in principle", and would make a start during his initial 100 days in office if he is re-elected as First Minister.
Mr McConnell said he was "very enthusiastic" about the Colella package, which represented "an agenda for considerable change", but recognised the challenges that had to be faced.
Mr Colella himself said that, while raising the school leaving age to 18 was possible, "it would be challenging and take significant time and resource to implement". The previous raising of the leaving age to 16 was set in 1962 but not implemented until 1972.
"We need to be clear about introducing compulsion for a section of our young people for whom compulsion, even with incentives before the age of 16, has not necessarily improved their participation within the current system," he said.
"Therefore, we should not force young Scots to go to school until the age of 18. Rather, we should raise the statutory school leaving age as a tool to ensure all 17 and 18-year-olds are meaningfully engaged in developing their skills and knowledge."
A key plank of the package is that young people should be encouraged to "learn to earn" and should not be given incentives "simply for turning up".
If this becomes the Scottish Executive's official view, it will place a question mark over education maintenance allowances, which are paid to persuade youngster from low income families to stay on in school or college. Ministers commit around pound;20 million a year to the scheme.
Mr Colella, who is now chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland, agrees that the legislation which will be necessary to implement the changes should lay down the condition that young people will only be allowed to leave school if they are in full-time further education, training, volunteering or employment with training.