`Young people are the litmus test'

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Angela Constance sets out her stall in part two of our interview

The government will continue to focus on improving the lot of Scotland's 16- to 19-year-olds, for whom life "remains much harder and harsher" than others, the country's new education minister has insisted.

In an exclusive interview with TESS, Angela Constance said that even though youth unemployment was at a five-year low, it was "utterly right that we focus on our young people".

"If you compare youth unemployment with adult unemployment.you will see that life remains much harder and harsher for our young people," the education secretary said.

Figures published last month reveal that youth unemployment has fallen by more than a quarter to 67,000 in the past year, the lowest total since 2009.

Student groups have repeatedly raised concerns about the government's focus on 16-19s, arguing that older learners and those returning to education could be squeezed out.

But Ms Constance, who took over as education secretary from Michael Russell in November, was unabashed about her government's strategy.

"I make absolutely no apologies.for having an utmost focus on young people," she said. "I think most reasonable people will accept and agree they have to be our priority.

"Because if we don't give them the right start to their working lives, they will be scarred through the rest of their life in terms of their opportunities and their life chances, and that in turn will have a huge impact on the country and on our economy in particular."

Ms Constance also addressed the issue of college reform, admitting that institutions had been suffering "difficult times". The structural overhaul has led to colleges merging and forming regional structures, at the same time as contending with significant funding cuts. The education secretary said that the reforms should now be given time to bed in. "A period of change is never without its challenges," she said. "And we are indeed all living with the consequences of financial constraint."

But Ms Constance added that the further education sector should be commended for how it had coped. "I think there is a lot about the sector that we need to celebrate more," she said. "It has been through difficult times of change, but in terms of outcomes for young people, it is really beginning to deliver."

In "broad terms", Ms Constance said, the changes had also increased accountability for college bosses. But she insisted that reform was about "improving the prospects of young people first and foremost".

She added: "I hope in everything I do as the new education secretary that my focus is going to be children and young people. That will be the litmus test for everything, for every decision I take: how will this improve the life chances and the education of our young people?"

Opportunities were also opening up for colleges and schools to work more closely together, thanks to recommendations from the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce, she said.

Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, said the proposals could "make vocational education fairer, easier to access and more flexible". But he also said it was vital that colleges were able to offer places and financial support to all prospective learners.

"While we recognise the focus on full-time courses to boost opportunities and improve youth employment, such a strategy runs the risk of excluding those who most need a place," he said. "With the economic downturn we've been through, it's important not just to provide opportunities for young people but also for those who are returning to education to retrain or upskill."

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said the organisation's members were "willing and ideally placed" to play a pivotal role in the government's strategy.

Colleges were already "making a major contribution" in improving outcomes for young people, including those from minority and ethnic backgrounds, Ms Struthers said. But they would need additional funding proposed by the government to "increase their capacity to deliver high-quality learning".

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