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Government backs rethink on preparing youngsters for work

The Scottish Government will support the broad thrust of the Wood Commission report on Scotland's young workforce, which urges a radical re-think on preparing young people for work.

The Government will publish its full response later in the year and minister Angela Constance has said it "shares the scale of ambition" of the business-led commission.

But there has as yet been little acknowledgement of one of the key messages of the report - that schools are ignoring the needs of the 50 per cent of non-academic school-leavers and letting them merely "fill in their time".

One of the Wood report's key recommendations is that Education Scotland "must work more closely with business organisations and their members to ensure that their work is underpinned by an understanding of industry's needs and expectations".

Adrian Green, who runs family-owned furniture manufacturer Treecraft Woodwork at Dornoch in Sutherland, believes his expectations of what to expect from school-leavers have been reasonable - but they are not being met.

"What we do when boys come for interview for an apprenticehip is we show them round, talk to them, then we just pick up any random piece of wood, and give them a tape measure and pencil.

"We ask them measure it, write the length down, and then sub-divide it into three or five equal pieces. What we found, and I have been doing this probably about eight or nine years, I haven't yet found anyone who can do it."

Mr Green says he is not alone: "I meet other contractors day to day and it is a common enough complaint. People say the guys that come to them can't measure, don't understand the metric system and millimetres and can't do basic arithmetic without a calculator or a mobile phone."

Last year Mr Green contacted his three nearest schools. "I spoke to the technical teacher or the careers guidance teacher and explained what we were looking for, and out of the three schools we got one person who came forward who had done an extra year at school - but couldn't pass the test."

Ian McLeod, production director at Hawick Knitwear, has taken on apprentices in the past year as part of a new industry scheme. But he admits: "We are still finding it difficult to get the right calibre of young people in the industry."

Vaughan Hart at the Scottish Building Federation says: "Tellingly, the most commonly cited reason for not recruiting more apprentices is a perceived shortage of suitable candidates."

Mr McLeod says a key factor has been "the education system steering people towards further and higher education rather than into industry. As a result the brighter kids are going off to college and university".

Mr Green agrees. "The basic flaw is that the emphasis in the last few years has been to get people on to further education.

"Coming from where we are in a rural area I can understand kids wanting to go off to Glasgow or Edinburgh and all the other universities.

"But where the schools then fail is that the ones who are left, I think they just abandon them."

He adds: "There is lots of talk about people coming out of university and unable to get jobs and with huge debts from student loans - whereas if they were directed towards an apprenticeship and were successful, they would be earning money from day one, and have a skill which is transferable.

"They can then move to the big city and find a job."

A key message from the Wood Commission is that "a focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) should sit at the heart of the development of Scotland's young workforce".

Earlier this month North Ayrshire council published what it called a "visionary report" which said the area's economic regeneration would be led by its "STEM agenda" - an education and skills programme being rolled out across all its schools.

Schools have been encouraged to forge links with industry by participating in company visits and working with staff, while the council plans to appoint STEM co-ordinators in every school, strengthen engineering and technology partnerships with colleges, and establish a wider strategy with the other two Ayrshire councils.

North Ayrshire Council Leader Willie Gibson said a growing number of primary-age children were involved in STEM-linked activity while the popularity of STEM subjects at exam level was rising. He said the progress "gives us all good reason to be more positive than ever about the future of young people in North Ayrshire".

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