Will Scotland have long wait for 'learner journey'?

Legislation backing radical plans to boost the job prospects for 16- 19s in Scotland is afoot, but with youth unemployment on the rise and colleges struggling financially, many fear progress on the road ahead may be delayed

Julia Belgutay

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Its supporters have hailed it as the most radical reform of post-16 education in recent times, and the key to Scotland's mounting youth unemployment problem.

Published a year ago, the post-16 reform paper Putting Learners at the Centre laid out ambitious proposals for raising the education and skills level of young people, thus improving their chances of gaining employment. Legislation supporting the policy is expected to be published in the next few weeks.

The paper included commitments to widen access to Scotland's universities for those from deprived backgrounds, improve careers advice, make the learner journey more flexible and more tailored to the individual's needs, align qualifications more closely with the labour market, and improve the governance and efficiency of Scotland's post-16 education institutions.

At its heart was the government's guarantee to provide a place in education, training or employment for every 16- to 19-year-old in Scotland to tackle the increasing number of young Neets - those not in education, employment or training. It also proposed reform and regionalisation of the college sector.

Few have denied the need for wide-ranging, all-encompassing reform, given a youth unemployment rate of 23 per cent in July to September last year.

But a year after its publication, has Michael Russell's blueprint for post-16 education had any effect?

"We are very happy with the progress made on the learner journey so far," the education secretary told TESS.

"All of the reforms we are putting in place are aimed at improving outcomes for learners and employers and we had to start making the structural changes required to deliver this."

Skills Development Scotland had "continued to raise the standards of the careers information advice and guidance services"; guidance on community learning and development had been published; and the government was working with learners and institutions to develop a template for student partnership agreements - contracts between institutions and learners on their rights and role in the system - Mr Russell said.

Opportunities for All, the government's place guarantee for every 16- to 19-year-old, was launched in April and, according to a government spokesman, "thousands of young people have taken up training or college places that would not have existed if the Scottish government hadn't taken action in this area".

Despite reports of thousands of applicants on waiting lists at colleges, the government insists full-time equivalent college numbers have been maintained. And universities have, for the first time, agreed widening access targets in their outcome agreements with the Scottish Funding Council for this academic year to improve HE access for a more diverse cohort of students.

"The proposals outlined in Putting Learners at the Centre have resulted in a number of reforms put into place. There has been genuine progress and real change," said Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland.

NUS Scotland "wholeheartedly supported the Scottish government's move to keep Scotland free of tuition fees, for Scottish students, and to provide additional funding to universities to at least close, if not exceed, any gap in funding between Scotland and England for university funding", he said.

"Equally, the increase in student support, to make it the best in the UK, and the abolition of part-time fees for the poorest students, will provide even more opportunities for students to afford an education. The Scottish government's proposals have also made real progress in starting to address Scotland's poor record on fair access to university."

But colleges feel their contribution to supporting post-16 reform is being made difficult by the adverse financial circumstances they face.

John Henderson, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, said: "Colleges accept the principle of regionalisation and have made real strides in taking it forward in this past year. The amount of change involved in these reforms is unprecedented. There's opportunity, but also risk, in that level of change."

He said 70 per cent of college provision was now offering opportunities to the government's target 16-19 age group, but that shift would have to be "carefully monitored against the impact on other learners and in breadth of provision".

"In the context of a 24 per cent budget cut by 2014-15, this a very challenging agenda," said Mr Henderson.

Mr Parker concurred, saying there were real concerns about "whether college learners can be at the centre of education when their institutions are facing a pound;34 million cut in the upcoming budget".

Scottish Labour's deputy education spokesman, Neil Findlay, said: "You just can't take out that amount of money from a service in the way that the Scottish government is doing without it affecting people's lives and life chances.

"Mike Russell seems to live in a parallel universe from everyone else. Back in the real world, there are over 20,000 on college waiting lists, the participation rate in further education for women has dropped by more than a third and adult learners and people with learning disabilities are finding more and more barriers to getting on part-time courses - all of this at a time of high and rising unemployment."

Official statistics seem to confirm there has been little progress in tackling Scotland's youth unemployment problem. Figures published this month by the Office for National Statistics on unemployment in Scotland showed a rise of 10,000 in the number of 16- to 24-year-olds unemployed between April-June and July-September 2012, as well as an increase in the unemployment rate for that age group from 21.1 per cent to 23.5 per cent over the same period.

Year on year - in the 12 months since Putting Learners at the Centre was published - the statistics showed that youth unemployment had risen by 0.4 per cent. The figures also highlight a side of the equation where the education secretary's reforms will struggle to have any effect - the lack of jobs and opportunities available in the Scottish and UK economy, especially to young people with only basic qualifications.

Because of this, the challenge of getting disengaged young people to pursue post-16 education has become significantly greater.

In a report on further education, the Scottish labour market and the wider economy, published earlier this month by the David Hume Institute, Professor Ewart Keep highlighted the importance of creating appropriate incentives for young people to engage in post-compulsory education.

He told TESS that the education sector often had a tendency to "obsess" about internal incentives created within the education and training system without worrying "quite as much as maybe they should about the external ones", ie, those created in wider society and the labour market.

In part, this could be due to the fact that internal incentives can more easily be influenced - for example, through curriculum reform or a focus on pedagogy, institutions can seek to enhance the intrinsic pleasure derived from the act of learning.

However, his research makes the point that "an individual's intended and actual point of entry and subsequent trajectory within the labour market will impact on their incentives to engage in learning".

While young people from middle-class backgrounds had strong incentives to engage in post-16 education because they were sure they would go to university, gain the necessary qualifications and start a career with a variety of progression opportunities, those from more deprived backgrounds or at the bottom of the attainment scale, who believed themselves to be heading for the lower end of the job market with little opportunity for improvement, often tended to see little point in further studies.

"We have got a very big problem motivating quite a large proportion of the populace," said Professor Keep.

This was partly due to the way in which many vocational qualifications in the UK were structured, preparing an individual for one specific job with little wider learning that could form the basis for future learning or labour market progression.

Professor Keep's research also revealed that the wage gains from possessing lower-level vocational qualifications were often poor, further reducing the incentive to acquire them in the first place.

The UK labour market was not regulated in the same way as markets elsewhere in Europe - where a set of qualifications is required to do a job - and to encourage young people to gain qualifications it was crucial to "think about the quality of jobs they are going into" and build more opportunities for them to progress.

"If there are no progression opportunities, why would I want to participate in education, particularly at my own expense?" he observed.

The difficult economic situation across the UK and in Scotland in particular, leading to a low number of available jobs, made the incentives for people to want to learn "even lower than they otherwise would have been".

Raising the aspirations of those coming into education from deprived backgrounds was key, Professor Keep said. And this had to include providing appropriate education or training opportunities, and also creating external incentives.

Apprenticeships could provide one way for people to learn while still being able to earn a wage at the same time; and education maintenance allowances could increase the incentive for people to stay in education.

Whether or not the reform of the post-16 education sector will be a long- term success in these challenging circumstances will depend in part on the post-16 legislation expected in the coming weeks, experts believe.

Mr Parker said: "We're very much at the start of this process rather than at the end."

"With legislation coming up that will cover widening access, fees for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, college governance and many other areas, things will become clearer over the coming months.

"But it's only through the passage of that legislation, combined with action from institutions at the local level, that we'll get to where we want to - seeing a post-16 sector that's open to all and one that genuinely puts students and learners at the centre."

  • 10,000 - The increase in the number of 16- to 24-year-olds unemployed from April-June to July-September 2012
  • 101,000 - The number of 16- to 24-year-olds unemployed in July to September 2012
  • 23% - The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds in July to September 2011
  • 21.1% - The unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds in April to June 2012, when Opportunities for All was launched
  • 23.5% - Youth unemployment rate for the quarter July to September 2012
  • 4,195 - Number of 16- to 24-year-olds who have been claiming Jobseeker's Allowance for 12 months or longer
  • 7,155 - The number of 16- to 24-year-old long-term Jobseeker's Allowance claimants in October 2012

      Widening access to university, especially for promising students from deprived backgrounds, was a crucial aspect of the Putting Learners at the Centre strategy.

      In return for generous funding, education secretary Michael Russell said universities should, for the first time, commit to fixed targets to improve the widening access arrangements in their individual outcome agreements with the Scottish Funding Council.

      All universities have now agreed individual goals for the academic year 2012-13.

      Because of the variable success in attracting students from more deprived backgrounds on account of different circumstances, traditions and structures, the goals that universities have set for themselves have been diverse.

      Some are said to have promised a significant boost in the number of students they take in from the most deprived 20 per cent; others have set targets to improve the retention of these students.

      Yet others have committed to make better arrangements with local colleges to improve articulation for students.

      School-university partnerships, as well as an increase in schemes to introduce school pupils from less traditional backgrounds to university - especially to high-tariff courses like medicine and law - are to be another focus.

      Universities Scotland's director, Alastair Sim, said: "Every one of Scotland's universities is committed to widening access, and together we are ambitious to see more people from all backgrounds realise their potential by taking up the opportunity of a university education."

      The timing of discussions for the first round of outcome agreements had not been ideal, he said, as universities had already recruited for the academic year 2012-13.


      John Wheatley College in Glasgow's east end engages with many learners and potential students who would traditionally have had little incentive to engage in further education.

      "Families in the communities which the college serves face a range of challenges, such as ill health, deprivation, lack of jobs and job opportunities, all of which influence young people's attitude to learning where they often do not recognise the relevance of qualifications and disengage from learning," principal Alan Sherry told TESS.

      "Many have no qualifications and believe their access to job and other opportunities is limited. And negative experiences can impact on their confidence and self-belief."

      Almost a third of residents in the north-east of the city have no qualifications, compared with a Scottish average of 12.3 per cent.

      The weekly wage of residents in the college's catchment area is also significantly lower than the average for Scots, at pound;416.20 compared with pound;486.90. The area also suffers from a lower workplace participation rate than elsewhere in Scotland.

      The college does its best to provide a service to prospective learners that will create an incentive for them to engage in and continue in education.

      "By working extensively with Glasgow City Council and third-sector partners, who provide an extended support framework, John Wheatley College's staff ensure each young learner becomes equipped with core skills, such as communications and numeracy, personal development skills like teamworking and problem-solving and vocational skills and qualifications," says Mr Sherry.

      One of the students who has benefited from this approach is 16-year-old Sean Gabillard (pictured right) from Springburn.

      Disengaged from mainstream education, he was referred to Glasgow's enhanced vocational inclusion programme (EVIP) - a scheme for youngsters in S3-4 to give them a chance to study vocational qualifications at college instead of staying on at school.

      "School just wasn't for me. If I hadn't gone to college, I would probably be running about the streets," says Sean. Having enjoyed "tech" classes at school, construction appealed to him, and unlike his experience at school he found learning at college interesting. Within a short time, he had embraced the opportunity, despite challenging personal circumstances. "I started to get the hang of it. I loved it."

      As well as having a good attendance and time-keeping record, he also managed to complete some Standard grades - the only student on the EVIP construction course to do so.

      According to college staff, he completed his EVIP programme with flying colours and went on to win a student award from the college. He is now studying on the national progression award: construction skills programme and is said to be making excellent progress.

      And earlier this month, Sean won a "highly commended" award in the School Candidate of the Year category of the SQA Star Awards 2012.

      When he finishes his course, he is determined to secure an apprenticeship and build a career for himself. He says he can't imagine what his outlook would have been, had he not gone to college.

      "I don't know what I would have done. I could have ended up in jail," he says.

      Original headline: Will Scotland have a long wait for the `learner journey'?

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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