Education and careers: delivering plenty of food for thought

A “revolution” is under way that will reshape the way skills are developed, nurtured and enhanced in Scotland.

The proposed shake-up aims to help drive the country’s economic transformation over the coming decades.

In 2022, the Audit Scotland watchdog warned the Scottish Government that “urgent action” was required to properly align the delivery of skills, such as apprenticeships, training, and further and higher education courses.

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The economy was said to be struggling to plug gaps, shortages and underutilisation of skills in areas such as social care, digital, and among those responding to the climate emergency. Some pressures had intensified in the wake of Brexit and Covid-19.

Former chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink James Withers headed up the landmark review.Former chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink James Withers headed up the landmark review.
Former chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink James Withers headed up the landmark review.

And the government was accused of failing to provide sufficient leadership in dealing with the problem.

James Withers, a consultant who previously served as chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink for more than a decade, was appointed to lead a landmark review into the future of the post-school skills landscape, which receives around£3.2 billion of public investment each year.

His report was published last year, and ministers have said they expect to take forward “pretty much everything” he recommended, although it will be a phased process.

It could lead to the creation of new bodies to take over the functions of the likes of Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

The changes would be part of a wider package of education reforms, which will also lead to the creation of three new bodies to replace the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland.

Withers described finding a “landscape of tensions” in the way the skills are currently delivered, with agencies “battling to secure their roles and advocate for their distinct parts of the system rather than working in collaboration, with a focus on the user, to deliver effective, efficient and joined-up public services”.

He wrote: “Users trying to access or navigate the system – whether individuals or employers – struggle to know which of the many entry points to use or which narrative to adopt.

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“They expend effort engaging with multiple bodies at different levels to try to find the advice they need. I consistently heard that the landscape is cluttered and complex. I would contend that it is not necessarily complexity that is the problem, it is confusion.”

A fragmented approach to funding was also highlighted in the report. For example, programmes like the National Transition Training Fund or elements of the Young Person’s Guarantee were said to have helped to fund additional provision to support upskilling and retraining, but that they were a short-term “bolt on” to core provision that was later withdrawn.

Withers also placed crucial importance on the need for “parity of esteem” between different pathways.

An example he used to illustrate this was that for a pupil in the senior phase of school, a Level 6 Foundation Apprenticeship has the same attainment value as a Level 6 Higher, yet head teachers have reported that they are often not viewed as comparable, and that there is little consistency in the way that educational institutions will treat them when assessing entry requirements for further and higher education.

There was also said to be a “false dichotomy” between university education and vocational learning that was “inherently problematic”.

Withers wrote: “The structure of the agency landscape also reflects this harmful, false division and fuels its persistence, with the Scottish Funding Council and SDS each advocating for different parts of the system.”

Under the recommendations put forward in the report, a single national funding body would be created to have responsibility for administering and overseeing the delivery of all publicly funded post-school learning and training provision.

This would bring together the responsibility for funding of apprenticeships and training currently held by SDS, and responsibility for funding universities and colleges, which sits with the SFC. The functions of the Students Awards Agency for Scotland could also come under the same umbrella.

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SDS could be “substantively reformed” to focus on the development of a national careers service.

The government was also urged to redesign the process for how funding for all learning and training provision, including apprenticeships, is allocated.

Funding to help with living costs should also be available to those undertaking part-time learning or pursuing certain approved accelerated retraining programmes, at the same pro-rata rate as those in full-time education, according to Withers.

Among his other recommendations, he said ministers should carry out a comprehensive audit of post-school qualifications and pathways with a view to “rationalising and refining publicly funded qualifications to produce clearer articulation between qualifications and awards”.

Withers concluded that by implementing his recommendations, a system could emerge which has “clarity of purpose, roles and responsibilities, offers flexibility and accountability and, crucially, gives learners of all ages what they need to define and achieve their own success in the careers path that is right for them”.

The Scottish Government’s programme of education reforms has been dogged by delays, and the further and higher education minister Graeme Dey has said he is taking time to consider any “unintended consequences” from the proposals.

However, he told MSPs in January: “One way or another, I expect us to take forward pretty much everything that is in the Withers review.

“We are still considering the merits of a number of smaller things but, overwhelmingly, we understand – as you can tell from the reaction of the elements of the sector to the review – that what he calls for is right.

“We are proceeding on the basis that we are looking to deliver that.”