Scottish schools are no longer supposed to set pupils on a linear educational path, where the emphasis is on picking up as many “academic” qualifications as they can along the way. Now, in the era of Curriculum for Excellence, school is about presenting myriad “learner journeys”, individualised experiences where pupils choose from a cornucopia of qualifications, depending on what suits them best.
That is the theory. Whether the school experience has changed that much, however, is a bone of contention. Some make the argument that, by and large, secondary schools still prioritise – and are judged by – how many Highers their pupils can bag in a year.
MSPs have cast doubt on whether Scottish education has broadened out its priorities, by questioning whether schools are doing enough to inform pupils about vocational options.
Ruth Maguire, SNP MSP for Cunninghame South, told the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee that, during Scottish Apprenticeship Week earlier this month, she had met a number of “very bright” young people – they had Higher science passes and had gone into engineering – at a paper mill in Irvine, North Ayrshire, who were at different stages in apprenticeships.
“They all had one thing in common, which was that they hadn’t been told about the possibility of apprenticeships in their school time – they’d all come to it later on,” she said. “Now, these are young folk in really high-quality apprenticeships. They’ve got good job prospects within our local community [by] following that path.”
Maguire wanted to see signs that the apprenticeships would be presented to pupils as having the same value as going to university.
She addressed her concerns about the lack of promotion of apprenticeships in schools to employability and training minister Jamie Hepburn, who said: “This is something that I have encountered as well…I would agree that there is a significant amount of young people who come to apprenticeships without it having been discussed as an option while in the school environment.”
This was “increasingly less the case”, he added, but schools’ record in presenting apprenticeships as an option was still “quite mixed”. Improving schools work in this area would be crucial in attempting to “open people’s minds” about apprenticeships.
Hepburn said that young people should be thinking about apprenticeships earlier than they typically do, even in the early part of secondary school when they are deciding which subjects they want to take – and that vocational education should be seen as just as important as “the academic pathway”.
He stressed, however, that Foundation Apprenticeships, which provide work-based learning for senior secondary pupils, are starting to take off in schools, with 1,200 starts this year – and a target of 5,000 by the end of 2019 – compared with only about 340 two years ago. However, they are not yet available in all local authorities and Maguire said they were not suited to the highly-skilled young people she had met last week.
Hepburn also told the committee meeting last week that every secondary should now have a lead officer for Developing the Young Workforce, the name taken from the landmark 2014 report by oil and gas tycoon Sir Ian Wood that sought to enhance vocational education in Scotland.
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith reminded the minister of the “very blunt” assessment this month by businessman Sir Tom Hunter, one of Scotland’s richest men, that “many youngsters in schools” still do not have “the necessary skills for what is a very changing world”.
Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, believes the MSPs’ view that some pupils do not hear about apprenticeships at school is “a fair comment”. Although she hears of apprenticeship opportunities being highlighted more frequently these days, it tends to happen in S5 and S6, which she believes is not early enough.
Murphy tells Tes Scotland: “Schools have often targeted the pupils they think are suitable for particular progression routes, but I think every pupil would benefit from considering different pathways…All options should be outlined to pupils in a broad sense in S2, so they can make the right decision for them, based on all the options available.”
She adds: “Parents certainly don’t hear enough about the different options available to their children.” This ignorance, Murphy fears, may lead to their children making the wrong choices: “Parents are often hesitant to support ‘unknown’ routes [of education] and can inadvertently negatively influence their children.”
Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, says that most schools now have ways of informing pupils about apprenticeships “inbuilt into their employability programmes”, although he concedes that “like all things in school, some young people will miss getting [this] information”.
He adds that every secondary school does now have a Developing the Young Workforce lead officer.
Thewliss says: “Schools are acutely aware of ensuring that young people are aware of the full breadth of opportunities available to them. Renfrewshire schools, for example, now have a member of staff who is the ‘employability project leader’. Most others will have a similar post.”
He adds that many schools are using their allocations from the national Pupil Equity Fund – which gives schools extra funding depending on how many of their pupils are entitled to free school meals – to build on this type of work.