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Training voucher stake the fast track

Neil Munro introduces a two-page report on the latest Conservative blueprint for Scottish education.

The most unexpected item in the White Paper centred on the announcement that post-16 skills vouchers will be introduced in Scotland from next April in advance of any similar move south of the border.

"Ministers see this as an opportunity for Scotland, which does not have the complication of sixth-form colleges and other difficulties, to move forward more quickly than the rest of the UK," one official said.

The vouchers, worth Pounds 3,000-Pounds 8,000 depending on the nature of the course, will allow 16 to 18-year-olds who have left school to pay for the training and further education college course of their choice. The full value will not be redeemed until the trainee has achieved a relevant national qualification.

Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, who announced the move, said it was an essential step in meeting the national education and training targets. Mr Heseltine said: "Scotland is already in a very strong position within the UK - 51 per cent of young people are educated to Higherstechnician standard, compared with 44 per cent; 26 per cent of the workforce have a higher education qualification, compared with 24 per cent." The programme, to be developed by the two national enterprise agencies and the FE colleges, will absorb Skillseekers and modern apprenticeships and include existing FE funding for the immediate post-school age-group. It is the transfer of college budgets that makes the scheme different from the Skillseekers initiative, which is confined to employers or training providers.

The extension of the Skillseekers programme has been piloted in Fife and the success of this employer-led scheme, known as Fast-Trac, has convinced the Scottish Secretary that it should go nationwide. But Scottish Office officials stress the Fife model will not necessarily be replicated.

The Fast-Trac project, launched for a three-year trial period in May 1995, claims to have helped overcome skill shortages in Fife, significantly improved the level of qualifications obtained by young people, and dramatically increased the numbers getting a job and going on to further education.

The White Paper has also pledged to increase the number of modern apprenticeship places, which skills vouchers can be used to purchase, from 2,700 to 10,000 by 1999. The local enterprise companies, careers service and FE colleges are also to be asked to improve the quality of courses for 16 and 17-year-olds who lack basic and pre-vocational skills.

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