Is Scotland sleep-walking into a failed English system for our young people?

Two perhaps unrelated points:

  1. I was in Glasgow last Friday at one of the TAG consultative meetings.
  2. There’s a feeling that the Scottish perspective on work with young people is light years ahead of England.

And yet here’s news that throws up  more than a few questions and contradictions.

The charity (WorkingRite) has just had some pretty devastating news. The Scottish government have given them three weeks’ notice that their contracts have been reduced by 80% ‘real term cuts’. The following paper analyses the situation.

Is Scotland sleep-walking into a failed English system for our young people?
Sleep WalkingWorkingRite, along with all other Scottish training providers, is facing a 40% cut in funding for work-based training programmes for young people in 2016/17. Meanwhile, the Scottish skills and employment budget is increased. The money is going somewhere – but not into work-based training. College funding has been protected and their role in the system enhanced. The weekly cash Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has gone up to encourage more young people to stay on at school. Speculation is rife that the work-based funding model for 16 to 18 year olds (the Employability Fund) will come to an end altogether to be replaced by something that includes the DWP budget promised under the Smith Commission. But replaced by what?

It all points to a direction of travel that apes the current English system, started by Ed Balls, and continued firstly by the Coalition and now by the Tories. That was a model that believed that the best way to get youngsters into work is to train them up in as many qualifications as possible and keep them in a classroom environment until they are 18. It seemed to stem from a belief that it is an undeniably good thing for all young people to stay on at school as long as possible – and if not school, then college. Aim for degrees if possible. Indeed, aim for the stars, equipped with all the qualifications you need to take you there.

Yet how many graduate waiters and bar staff with a student debt stretching well into their middle age do we need to meet, to know that university has failed to meet its promise for many? How many fruitless interviews must employers endure before their opinion counts – that qualifications alone do not produce good employees? And how many youngsters who have failed at school have to be forced into repeat academic failure at college? One size does not fit all.

For up to 20% of young people aged 16 to 18, the academic route to employability holds no attraction. Instead, the practical and adult setting of a workplace has a more profound effect. A work placement provides a chance for them to prove themselves, not by their qualifications or lack of them, but by what they can do and how they can behave. Yet could it be that our proud Scottish system of work-based learning is soon to be at risk, thus condemning thousands of our youth to a system that fails to help them cross the employment threshold in a way that works for them?

As a Scottish youth training provider, who has also been involved in the English system since 2006, we have seen the English first scrap work-based training programmes for post school 16 to 18 year olds, and then force them into colleges to build up portfolios of credits leading to the promise of a loftily titled ‘Foundation Diploma’. A ‘Diploma’ which included credits on catching a bus, brushing your teeth, and washing a car. (All true).

Ed Balls then took it a step further and made it the law that every young person should either be at school or college, or be enrolled in an accredited training course until their 18th birthday. (‘Raising the Participation Age’ – or RPA for short). Of course, apprenticeships were dangled as the Holy Grail for those less academic but the route into them, according to their thinking, should be college.

When the Coalition came in, they set about implementing RPA and thus created a real case study from our parallel delivery in Scotland and England:

Two young people, both aged 16: one from our Paisley project and the other from our Hastings project. Both were taken on by their employer after 16 weeks into a full time job. Both employers were pleased they had found a good young worker to commit to. Both young people were thrilled.

 The Scottish one earned us a £600 bonus for a positive outcome from SDS.
The English one was classed as a failure, affecting our funding the following year.

How could this be possible? The answer is that the Hastings one was deemed to have ‘left the course early’. In England, with the RPA changes, we are seen as an education provider and subject to Ofsted inspections. Our programme (despite its 4 days a week in the workplace) is deemed to be a course with a finish date. This youngster so impressed the employer that they wanted to take him on early. A result that the current Scottish system welcomes. In England, that result is a failure, and because qualifications are king, there are no payments for getting youngsters into jobs, only for passing exams. In fact, under RPA, our English trainee and their employer were effectively breaking the (unenforceable) law.

Then to put the icing on the cake, the English Government took a step further and abolished work experience at school. This is what comes from failing to see how all these things connect. Schools and colleges obviously have their place, and probably work for most, but experience of real work counts massively. And for those who failed at school, the work-based training option is a vital ingredient in the mix.

So could the Scottish Government be about to repeat those English mistakes?  Nearly ten years after the start of this switch from work-based training to classroom skills training, the English Government is only now realising that apprenticeships do not grow simply because politicians have promised them. It takes an employer to make an apprenticeship, and the SMEs, the engine of an entrepreneurial economy, are historically reluctant to take on apprenticeships in any number – unless they are actively encouraged to do so.

This is where Scotland’s work-based pre-apprenticeship/employment programme (SDS’s Employability Fund) excelled. Whilst England became seduced by qualifications and turned its back on work-based training, Scotland continued to believe in a work-based approach and saw its youth unemployment figures come down in comparison to England.  Under the Scottish system, employers have been able to try a youngster out first on a supported placement and then, once their trainee has learned those key employability skills (time-keeping, teamwork, initiative and respect), they were willing to create brand new apprenticeships where there were none before. In my encounters with English providers and civil servants over these years, I have been met with sighs of envy for the ‘sensible Scottish system’. They will now be dumbfounded to hear that Scotland is sleepwalking into the English system.

We in WorkingRite are passionate believers in work-based training. Not many people can remember their first module in a skills qualification, but everyone remembers their first ‘boss’! Colleges have their place in the journey, but without a base of meaningful work experience, qualifications are contextless. Relationships at work teach a young person the crucial skills of employment – indeed, adulthood. Experience of the realities of the workplace is the real skills gap for this age group. The Scottish Government should be proud of what it has achieved with the Employability Fund.

We therefore call on the Scottish Government to send a message that work-based training is a vital ingredient in Scotland’s youth employability strategy, to revisit its spending priorities, and reverse this 40% cut.

Sandy Campbell

Director Founder of WorkingRite

Thanks to Vicki Young and Alan Mackie for info and photo.

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