Working together to engineer life chances

5th September 2014 at 01:00
The Wood commission's recommendations are providing the scaffolding needed to strengthen vocational links between schools, colleges and local businesses. ?Julia Belgutay investigates

As schools and colleges settle into the new term and welcome back pupils and students, they may find their worlds colliding more than ever before.

The Scottish government has called on both sectors, along with employers, to begin implementing the recommendations outlined earlier this year by the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce led by Sir Ian Wood.

What the commission hopes to achieve is clear: a world-class vocational education and training system that allows for seamless transition between school, college, university and the labour market. But to suggest that all the ideas outlined in its June report are new would be to do a disservice to the work that has long been ongoing between many colleges and their local schools.

"A lot of the Wood commission recommendations are in line with what we have been trying to achieve at college for years," says Bill Dower, spokesman for Dundee College. "Historically, staff have worked hard to forge links with industry and encourage local employers to provide placements for students.

"Likewise, there are a plethora of highly successful school links programmes in place, which have seen construction students from local schools attend college, while college lecturers attend local schools such as Braeview Academy - which has its own hair and beauty salon and automotive workshop - to deliver courses on site."

Dower concludes: "College staff are now not so much designing new programmes and schemes to fit with the Wood commission recommendations, but are formalising and embedding existing arrangements with local industry."

North East Scotland College, for example, provides vocational training for some 1,800 school pupils each year and has established pathways from school to college and then on to university with 36 higher national certificates and diplomas. Similarly, in 2013-14 West College Scotland delivered vocational qualification taster programmes to 3,124 senior school pupils in school, on a college campus or online.

Renewed efforts

So far, so good. But the commission's report has given fresh impetus to the work already going on in the sector and colleges are introducing some innovative schemes.

For students living in remote areas, North East Scotland College is piloting the use of virtual learning environments to increase their access to vocational learning in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects.

In Glasgow, a working group of the city's three colleges and the local authority has overseen the introduction of three National Certificate courses for school pupils hosted by the colleges. A spokeswoman for Glasgow Clyde College says it is implementing a similar model in partnership with East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire.

For the new academic year, West College Scotland is introducing an engineering course for senior-phase pupils at its Clydebank campus, as well as incorporating a new renewable energy unit into a Skills for Work programme at Inverclyde.

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, explains that colleges across Scotland are strengthening their existing links with schools and treating the Wood commission as a priority.

"The sector is committed to working with local authorities and other partners to make school pupils more aware of the wide range of opportunities available at college, and how studying at college could enhance their prospects," she says, adding that the organisation is focusing on securing additional funding to help it to deliver its commission commitments.

In June, soon after the Wood report was published, the Scottish government announced that pound;4.5 million would be invested in piloting two new types of apprenticeship - foundation apprenticeships for school pupils and advanced ones for young people training at graduate level - as well as developing the careers advisory service, addressing gender segregation and getting regional employer partnerships off the ground.

Creating innovators

Training, youth and women's employment minister Angela Constance commented at the time that she shared the ambitions of the commission to reducing youth unemployment.

"The report from Sir Ian Wood and his colleagues on the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce has the potential to truly transform vocational education and training in Scotland," she said.

The new foundation apprenticeships are being piloted in Fife and West Lothian this term. They aim to help pupils gain vocational training and practical work experience at the same time as addressing concerns voiced by smaller employers around the cost and commitment required to take on a young person.

Fife College's lead for Stem development, Janet McCauslin, says that pupils will make a start on the engineering apprenticeship pilot in the coming weeks after an exhaustive selection process. Between 40 and 50 students from Queen Anne, Auchmuty, Lochgelly, Kirkcaldy and Buckhaven high schools will study for their Highers on a slightly reduced timetable, allowing them to spend approximately five to six hours every week on the college campus working towards vocational qualifications.

"They are scaffolding up their skills at the same time as they are scaffolding their knowledge," she says.

Unlike other vocational programmes targeting Christmas leavers or students at risk of not securing a positive destination, the foundation apprenticeship is aimed at students working for Highers and with Stem subjects in their portfolio.

These young people could become the "technicians and innovators of the future", McCauslin believes. Their training at the college will take place in part during after-school sessions, which she says requires a commitment that only truly determined students will demonstrate. "We ask for that commitment because we think that will get the right people," she says.

In addition to academic learning at school and vocational training at college, a substantial work placement is the third essential aspect of the apprenticeship. The engineering apprentices in Fife will take part in a relevant industry placement next year before beginning their second year of training.

Ripe for recruitment

After the two-year pilot, the students should be "ready to be recruited by employers if that is their choice", McCauslin says. Alternatively, they may decide to continue their engineering studies at college or university, or become modern apprentices.

The college firmly believes that this project - which introduces young people to employers and shortens the time it would take for a company to integrate them into their work environment - fits neatly with the Wood commission's conclusions.

Indeed, Chris Parr, chief executive of local employer Tullis Russell and chair of the Fife Economy Partnership, says he is "really excited" about the foundation apprenticeship pilot. He believes that the work placements will introduce young people to the realities of the work environment early, benefiting both them and employers in Fife.

Local businesses are keen to get involved, he stresses. "Good businesses would jump at the opportunity to get access to motivated young talent as early as possible."

Head of education for East and Levenmouth at Fife Council, Derek Brown, says that the pilot is "an additional way for us to help prepare our children for the future".

"In Fife, we are ambitious for all our children and one of our main priorities has been to make sure that all our school-leavers go on to positive destinations," he says.

"We have always had very strong links with Fife colleges and this programme has helped us to strengthen these further. We are also committed to learning with partners such as Fife College about different ways to enable the Wood commission report agenda, so that young people benefit."

In West Lothian, 31 pupils at four schools have already taken part in a two-week summer school for S4 pupils at West Lothian College, completing two SQA units while being paid a small training allowance. They returned to the college last month to begin their training part time. Meanwhile, employers are working alongside the college and school to ensure that students are work-ready by the end of S5.

Colin Miller, head of essential skills and progression at West Lothian College, says the apprenticeship is an "alternative approach to learning and highlights the benefit of stepping outwith the school classroom to experience a new environment and learn new skills".

The director of service design and innovation at Skills Development Scotland, Jonathan Clark, agrees. "This new approach to foundation apprenticeships will better prepare young people for the world of work by equipping them with experience and skills, as well as the knowledge they require for today's changing labour market," he says.

"By forging stronger links between schools, colleges and businesses, we will be able to provide young people with access to work-based learning while still at school. Over the coming months, we will be rolling out this approach across the country and across different sectors to provide many more young people with the opportunity to develop the skills for work."

Whisper it, but it may just be possible that the Wood commission is really having an impact.

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