Government figures on what happens to teenagers when they leave school have been branded “a fraud” by one of Scottish education’s biggest hitters, with secondary headteachers admitting that the current system lacks rigour and is open to abuse.
More than 90 per cent of teenagers entered a so-called “positive destination” upon leaving school last year, including university, further education and employment, statistics show.
However, Keir Bloomer told TESS that “deadend jobs”, where young people were working for the minimum wage or less, were being counted as positive destinations. The education expert, one of the architects of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, argued that only “worthwhile employment” should be included in the statistics, and called for “more stringent criteria” to be introduced.
The Scottish government, however, hit back at his claims, claiming it was “unhelpful” to use the expression “dead-end jobs” and it “risked insulting many thousands of hard-working young people”. Business leaders backed this up, saying that getting a job was “the best route to escaping poverty.”
Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, also attacked the statistics, saying that his organisation had “always had an issue over the definition of what a positive destination is”.
The current system is open to abuse because of a lack of clarity, Mr Thewliss added.
“There needs to be more rigour around what ‘positive’ means – what sort of job? How long have they been there for? Is it sustainable? Is it a real job?” he said.
Government officials told TESS that not every job is classed as a positive destination – an informal paid task such as a paper round would not count, for instance, but a part-time waitressing job would, they said. To be classed as employed, school leavers do not have to work a minimum number of hours or to be earning minimum wage, they just have to report that their job is their “main destination”.
The most recent government statistics on the proportion of pupils in positive destinations show that 92.9 per cent of 2014-15 leavers were in one by October – the highest proportion reported at that point in the year since comparable records began. Positive destinations include university, further education, training, voluntary work, employment and activity agreements. Around a fifth of school leavers – 21.7 per cent – were classed as being in employment (see graphic, top right).
Mr Bloomer spoke to TESS after the issue was raised at a conference by Jim McColl, the businessman who founded Glasgow’s Newlands Junior College, which aims to give a fresh start to struggling students (see box, right).
When asked what he thought of the school leaver destination statistics, Mr Bloomer said that they were “a fraud”. “When we talk about positive destinations we should be talking about higher education, further education and worthwhile employment.
“We need to decide what constitutes worthwhile employment and what doesn’t. I don’t think a dead-end minimum-wage job is a positive destination. If we want to measure something that is worthwhile measuring, we are going to have to use more stringent criteria.
“As a general rule of thumb, if 90 per cent-plus are passing a test, it’s not much of a test.”
Secondary headteachers who spoke to TESS individually agreed that “some data collected on schools’ positive destinations was less than robust” and that work needed to be done on what counted.
There was also some frustration that pupils embarking on a gap year were not counted as entering a positive destination.
However, the headteachers said that focusing on what happens to pupils following school had been beneficial.
Mr Thewliss added: “We are in a better place than we used to be in that nine or 10 years ago, we didn’t know anything about school leaver destinations. This level of engagement between schools, further education, higher education and employers has never been there before. But there has to be more clarity around what a positive destination is.”
An SNP spokesman said: “Phrases like ‘dead-end jobs’ are very unhelpful, and risk insulting many thousands of hard-working young people across Scotland, who have got their foot on the employment ladder and are looking to move upwards in their career. It is absolutely right that all paid employment should be counted in these statistics.”
Hugh Aitken, the director of CBI Scotland, said that a job was “the best route to escaping poverty”. He added that businesses had a “responsibility to ensure employees have access to development opportunities, effective line management and training where possible.”
The system ‘exaggerates positive outcomes’
How well does school equip young people for adult life? One key indicator is what they do after leaving. Monitoring “leaver destinations” is thus very worthwhile and it is important that it is done as well as possible.
The current statistics seek to distinguish between destinations that are positive and those that are not. In some cases there is little doubt. Going on to university is very likely to be positive, although there are exceptions, such as where a student drops out having wasted time and achieved little. Becoming unemployed is clearly not positive.
But what can be said of “activity agreements” and very short, low-level training courses? These are counted as positive but the benefit to young people is often negligible. Similarly, employment is seen as a good outcome, regardless of the nature of the job, the pay or the prospects for the person’s future.
The current categorisation exaggerates the proportion of school leavers who achieve positive destinations. This benefits nobody, particularly not those who end up not unemployed but in dead-end and activities of various kinds. Monitoring leaver destinations can yield valuable information – but only if done properly.
Keir Bloomer is one of the architects of Curriculum for Excellence
‘Activity agreements’ are a cop-out, says billionaire tycoon
“Activity agreements”, designed to help some young people bridge the gap between school and employment, training or education, are a “cop out”, businessman Jim McColl has claimed.
Mr McColl, who set up Newlands Junior College in Glasgow for pupils who are struggling in secondary, criticised the government for classifying pupils signed up to them as being in “a positive destination”.
Speaking at a conference last week in Edinburgh organised by the Commission on School Reform, he said: “An activity agreement allows a school to tick the box saying a pupil has entered a positive destination but it can be a two-day activity agreement. It’s a cop out – these people are not going on to positive destinations.”
According to the latest statistics, 0.9 per cent of the 53,836 school leavers in 2014-15 were deemed to have entered a positive destination because they signed up to activity agreements.
The agreements were introduced by the Scottish government in April 2011 as part of its commitment to offer further education or training to all 16-19-year-olds not in education, employment or training. They are aimed primarily at those aged 16 and 17 who are furthest from the labour market.
Under an activity agreement these teenagers might embark on a skills-for-life course or taster courses at a local college; they can also be involved in work experience. The first goal for one boy, who had been badly bullied at school, was to travel independently. The scheme has been held up as an example of best practice but there is no minimum amount of engagement required for a young person to participate.
Mr McColl continued: “If you say to someone ‘positive destination’, you think, ‘OK, job done’. But then they go on a two-day get-ready-for-work course.”
Some 2,845 young people left their activity agreement in 2014-15, with 70 per cent progressing on either to employment, further learning or training.