Making light work of the skills deficit

Higher Education Conventions give youngsters a chance to learn about opportunities open to them. Picture: Julie Bull
Higher Education Conventions give youngsters a chance to learn about opportunities open to them. Picture: Julie Bull
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To sustain growth, Scotland must increase the adaptability of our workforce, and Norway can show us how it is done, argues Damian Yeates

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank in autumn 2008, the UK economy and labour markets have faced some very real challenges.

Against this backdrop, I was encouraged by a key set of results last week – 91.4 per cent of Scotland’s pupils set out on a constructive work or training path on leaving school this summer, more than ever previously recorded. The importance of this positive transition is enormous, not only for the ambitions of that young person, but for our national skills base and economic competitiveness.

“Human capital”, or the skills and capabilities of a nation’s workforce, is a key priority for governments in most post-industrial countries, even countries such as Norway with a growth rate of 3 per cent.

On a recent visit, I knew I would be impressed by Norway’s skills agenda; it has the highest human development ranking in the world.

21st century skills

What surprised me when I joined an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) panel of experts invited to advise the Norwegian government, was the level of interest in the ethos behind Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) – and specifically, the instant recognition of CfE’s advantages in supporting people to gain 21st century skills.

Almost all countries have common skills challenges – planning for quickly emerging and contracting industries, youth unemployment, gender inequalities and acquiring the skills needed for growth. So when my colleagues in Norway described Scotland’s educational approach as a bold step in the right direction, it was very encouraging.

One recurring theme in Norway was the thorny issue of industry engagement with the education system. It’s becoming a ubiquitous challenge for developed economies and is currently the principal focus for the Commission into Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, led by Sir Ian Wood. Inevitably debate polarises around the respective benefits of vocational and academic routes to employment and specifically the need to stimulate greater participation by industry in vocational training.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a range of initiatives and projects, from TVEI to Education Business Partnerships. It is important that lessons, good and bad, are learned from these in addressing how we design an approach that harnesses the contribution of industry, making it an embedded pillar of education.

A new mindset is required to produce a model with the scale and sustainability to transform the lives of all young people – particularly those leaving school into the short- and long-term consequences of being unemployed.

We should not be tempted to simplify this into an argument about academic versus vocational education; it is about effective pathways that deliver the complex mixture of experience, skills, capabilities and qualifications required by industry to drive economic growth.

An industry-led model, looking to maximise and motivate the talents of every learner, must hold the key. Should we be adopting work-based learning more vigorously? Most other northern European countries have frameworks that enable senior-phase school and college students to pursue academic or non-academic studies while simultaneously taking up a place in a real-time workplace. Rather than employers being bit-part players in the development of a future skillsforce, this allows every senior pupil to spend time in the workplace, where 21st century core skills – adaptability, initiative, leadership, productivity and responsibility – come alive.

‘Link-based learning’

Making educational experience relevant to future aspirations inevitably encourages students to complete their studies – important in light of the lower average job outcomes for S4 leavers compared to S6.

It’s an approach gaining real traction in California. This type of experiential “link-based learning” is described as holding “the greatest potential to transform current educational practice in the state” by a key Californian learning alliance.

By maximising their school and post-school education, senior-phase students are able to gain vital insights and connections they need to excel in industry and integrate it with academic study. We know employers are seeing the value in work-based learning. Skills Development Scotland’s recent employer survey showed 96 per cent of Modern Apprentice employers said employees were better at their jobs after completing their apprenticeship. Companies such as Scottish Gas and ScottishPower have structured programmes of work-based learning for employees while selected Siemens employees are getting the opportunity to complete their masters in engineering within 2½ years – studying concurrently with their work and delivering high achievement rates.

Scotland’s future economy needs a productive young skillsforce and greater levels of gender participation across all sectors. Global economic priorities drive our need to create greater levels of skills and expertise in science, technology, engineering and maths and, above all, we need a model to prevent young people entering the low achievement cycle that unemployment brings – all during a time of contracted public spending.

Among the systems I have experienced, arguably Scotland is best-placed to leverage all its considerable assets in response to this challenge. The process is under way with the roll-out of CfE, a new regional structure for the college sector and the creation of a national skills agency in Skills Development Scotland. The final and most transformative impact will be achieved when Scottish industry is fully engaged in our education system.

• Damian Yeates is chief executive of Skills Development Scotland


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