All Scottish schools should offer vocational courses to move away from the "ingrained" and "ill-informed" perception that work-related education is inferior to higher education, a new report recommends.
The document comes from a Scottish government commission investigating how to help young people into work. According to the commission, schools should start to deliver National Certificates (NCs) and Higher National Certificates (HNCs) by August next year. The courses, traditionally offered by colleges, should be made available in every secondary school from S4 onwards within three years, it said.
The courses could be offered in partnership with colleges "without significant additional funding", according to the commission. However, its chairman, businessman Sir Ian Wood, warned that there would be costs associated with the rise in NCs and HNCs being studied.
Angela Constance, minister for youth employment, welcomed the commission's recommendations and said she would report back in due course.
The report says: "Scotland has deservedly an acclaimed higher education sector... we must now place the same focus on significantly enhancing our vocational education to achieve the same acclaimed status."
Many S4 students who are not academically orientated are being allowed to "drift" in school and are "fast becoming bored and frustrated", according to the report, which adds that the pathway for academic students to follow is obvious but that "clearer and more open routes for all young people" are needed. It calls for vocational subjects to become "explicit indicators of success for all schools" alongside more academic qualifications.
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES), agreed that Scotland was guilty of being too focused on measuring and trying to drive up the attainment of the most academic students while ignoring the rest.
Both ADES and the secondary headteachers' organisation, School Leaders Scotland (SLS), welcomed the introduction of a more highly developed vocational route for schools. However, Ken Cunningham, general secretary of SLS, warned that success would depend on funding.
At the report's launch last week, Sir Ian said: "Every morning, 77,000 young people in Scotland wake up wondering whether their society really needs them because they are unemployed."
The commission also called for careers advice to be delivered "significantly earlier than the present S4 onward", in a way that "inspires and excites" young people.
The recent shift away from face-to-face careers advice in Scottish schools towards an online service has been heavily criticised. The report says it is "too early to properly assess the effectiveness of the modernisation of the careers service". But Mr Stodter summed up the careers advice service as "pretty poor". "It's almost as if you get careers advice on an exceptional basis and it's assumed most people don't need it," he said.
Teachers have an important role to play in preparing young people for employment, the report adds, suggesting that these skills should be taught in teacher training and through continuing professional development.
But it also recommends that business should play its part, saying that too many businesses in Scotland have for too long been "passive consumers of the education system", failing to engage with schools and colleges. Ad hoc initiatives should be replaced with longer-term partnerships such as adopting a school, providing meaningful work experience and assisting with vocational equipment and resources, according to the report.
The next phase of the commission's investigation will look at employers' support for young people.
West Lothian is ahead of the game
Some authorities are already offering college qualifications to school students.
In West Lothian this year, all S5 students were given the opportunity to apply to study for an HNC in computing or engineering at West Lothian College. They will study for two afternoons a week for two years. If successful, the young people will achieve an HNC and two Highers by the time they leave school.
Computing and engineering were chosen because of the demand for skilled workers in these areas. However, in the future, the authority hopes to offer a wider range of HNCs.