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'Two systems, one goal; how England and Scotland are tackling youth unemployment.'


David Harbourne, director of policy and research for the Edge Foundation, writes:

Wolf. Richard. Wood. Three names, three hugely influential reports.

Alison Wolf’s report led to fundamental changes in 14-19 vocational education.

Doug Richard kick-started the biggest reform of apprenticeships in a generation.

And now there’s Sir Ian Wood’s report, Education Working For All!

By now, you’ll be scratching your head and wondering how you missed it. Easy: it was commissioned and published by the Scottish Government. Virtually no-one south of the border has heard of it.

The Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce – the Wood Commission for short – was asked to find ways of tackling the enduring problem of youth unemployment.

Young people in Scotland are three times more likely to be unemployed than older workers and twice as likely as young people in the best performing European countries.

Meanwhile, less than 30 per cent of Scottish businesses have any kind of contact with education and only 13 per cent have Modern Apprentices.

The Commission focused on the path young people take from school to work. As a starting point, their report says schools and employers should work together to expose young people to a wide range of career options. A key target is for all 363 secondary schools in Scotland to be in long-term partnerships with employers within three years.

A second target is for all school pupils to undertake work experience and access career guidance by 2020.

In terms of the school curriculum, the Wood Report says young people of all abilities should be able to follow vocational pathways alongside academic studies. New school-college vocational partnerships will make it possible for students to take – say – a Higher National Certificate before leaving school.

More widely, colleges will work with employers and national industry sector groups to make sure they offer the skills and qualifications demanded by the modern labour market.

Not surprisingly, apprenticeships also feature strongly in the Wood Report. One recommendation is to let young people start a foundation apprenticeship while still at school. Another is for a sustained increase in Modern Apprenticeships at level 3 and above.

Introducing these reforms requires a step change in employer links with education. The Commission wants new partnerships to provide leadership, a single point of contact and support for engagement between employers and education at the regional level.

The Scottish Government will respond fully in the autumn. However, Ministers have already accepted the proposal for new partnerships, which they are calling “Invest in Young People” groups. An initial sum of £1 million has been set aside to get groups off the ground.

Another £3 million will enable Skills Development Scotland to take forward recommendations on Modern Apprenticeships, careers and equality. The first pilot foundation apprenticeship will begin in August in partnership with Fife College, for school pupils taking engineering. The government has also accepted the case for more high-level apprenticeships, all the way to degree level.

The Wood Report says remarkably little about what’s happening in England. Fair enough – we hardly ever think about our nearest neighbours.

Europe, on the other hand, comes up time and again. Scotland wants to emulate Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, with their culture of deep industry engagement with education; vocational education and training systems which start in secondary school; and social partnerships which bring employers, unions and the state around the table to plan for a shared future.

England shares Scotland’s admiration for Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. However, while Scotland is taking a planned, co-ordinated approach, England is devolving choice and responsibility to the level of individual schools, colleges and employers.

For example, there is no funding for “Invest in Young People” groups south of the border: central funding for education business partnerships was abolished three years ago. Instead, schools and colleges are free to do as they please.

At the same time, the English funding system fosters competition for post-16 students – and increasingly post-14 students, too – which gets in the way of school-college vocational partnerships.

As for apprenticeships, Scotland’s cautious approach builds on existing Modern Apprenticeships by extending them backwards into schools and gradually expanding level 3 opportunities.

Down south, the government is going for broke. In future, individual employers will put cash on the table and negotiate with local colleges and training providers to get the precise training they want, at the right price.

For most employers, however, this will be a new experience. Up till now, they haven’t negotiated hard on either content or price. Indeed, only a minority have made any financial contribution to external training and assessment costs – the whole sum has been paid by the government. Will they take up the challenge, or walk away?

Scotland and England have similar goals in mind – tackling youth unemployment, driving up skills, meeting employer needs. If Scotland is the tortoise and England the hare, who will get there first?

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