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The Age Gap: preparing children for the world of work

After years of talk in Britain about bringing in a German-style apprenticeship system and of the need to give young people more vocational training opportunities, the pendulum finally appears to be swinging, north of the Border at least.

Having spent 18 months ­looking at how vocational education could be improved, Sir Ian Wood's Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce published its final report at the start of June. It concluded that the educational system is failing half of youngsters and that businesses need to help schools in Scotland to prepare pupils for the world of work.

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The report was followed by the publication last week of a survey from Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Council

for ­Development and Industry (SCDI) that found only 8% of ­Scottish employers feel they are doing enough to engage with the education and training system.

Scotland's unemployment level for 16- to 24-year-olds is 18.8% - more than double that of the average-working-age population and twice that of the best-performing European countries.

Unusually, the Commission report kept away from ­bureaucratic language, noting starkly at one point that "almost one in five young people in Scotland wake up in the morning wondering if their country needs them".

Despite data suggesting that some parts of the UK economy are beginning to recover from the recession, young people in Scotland have yet to feel any improvement. According to the Office for National Statistics, 7,000 more Scottish under-25s in 2013 did not have a job compared with the previous year.

The Commission pointed out that more than half of young people do not go to university. It highlighted the fact that only 27% of employers offer work experience, only 29% recruit young people directly from education and just 13% have modern apprenticeship schemes.

"Businesses and industry must be encouraged to work together with education and young people, and vice versa, to establish pro-active and engaged relationships which will benefit both young people and employers," the report said.

It also states that implementation of its recommendations could slash youth unemployment by 40% by the end of the decade, reducing the number of jobless youngsters in Scotland by 30,000, to the average rate of the five best-performing European countries.

This could be done by countering an ingrained and "ill-informed" national culture that assumes that learning a trade is a "significantly inferior option" to academia.

"We are simply not preparing or equipping these young people for the world of work," the report said. "There must be much more focus on providing them with the skills, qualifications and vocational pathways that will lead directly to employment opportunities."

The Scottish Government, which has so far set aside £12 million to tackle youth unemployment, expects to make an initial response to the report before the Scottish Parliament goes into recess in two weeks' time and to publish its full response in the autumn. A spokesman said on Friday: "Detailed implementation will depend on work with partners in local government and we are working with them and others on how the recommendations will be taken forward."

Sir Ian Wood, founder of the oil and gas company Wood Group, told the Sunday Herald that when the Commission started its field work in 2013 he was surprised to find an "embarrassing lack of clear planning" in the way that schools help pupils choose their careers.

The report's 39 recommendations do not require substantial funding to implement, he said, and this one-off cost - estimated at between £10m and £15m a year for the first three years - would more than pay for itself through the long-term improvement to Scotland's economy.

Moving to a situation where youngsters who are not ­academically inclined receive useful training and "meaningful", industry-recognised qualifications would be a massive boost for the country, Wood said. "That's going to cost virtually nothing and that will undoubtedly stop a lot of young people becoming disengaged."

He added: "There has been a culture that a university education is the be-all and end-all and that if you don't achieve that you have failed. The country needs to balance its education system so that youngsters can choose between vocational and academic opportunities."

Liz Cameron, chief ­executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, hailed the report, and said it had "the potential to be transformational in terms of ­placing careers outcomes and business need at the very heart of the learning experience."

The need for the country to ­rebalance its economy by moving away from a reliance on financial services and towards the sorts of manufacturing industries in which countries such as Germany and

the Netherlands excel is also one of the driving forces behind the report.

The Wood report calls for an ­additional 5,000 modern apprenticeship places at level 3 and above by 2020, as well a focus on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The Scottish Government - which on Friday announced a strategy to re-industrialise an independent Scotland by growing the country's manufacturing sector by 30% by 2030 - is likely to agree with that emphasis. But many of the UK's modern apprenticeships, launched in the 1980s by the Conservatives, fail to provide young people with the skills found in many European countries.

Many apprenticeships in ­Scotland are in the service sector and are graded as Level 2 or below, the equivalent of Standard Grade school qualifications. By contrast, apprenticeships in Germany have a greater focus on on-the-job training and standards are overseen and upheld by the powerful Federal Institute for Vocational Training.

However, the Scottish Government is opposed to streaming pupils, as happens in the German secondary school system, where less academically inclined pupils are at the age of 10 or 11 sent to schools with a greater focus on vocational training. The Scottish­Government is also thought to be looking at the model in Switzerland, where a large proportion of young people start an apprenticeship in the latter phase of school.

A spokesperson for the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland said vocational and higher education in Scotland needs to "raise its game" when it comes to preparing young people for the world of work.

"Many micro and small businesses struggle to engage in the education system or in the hiring of modern apprenticeships because of time and cost restraints.

"Many are working long hours in a multitude of roles with no human resources back-up."

Although broadly supportive of the Wood report, the Federation believes there is a danger that the government will be too prescriptive and place too much emphasis on achieving arbitrary targets, such as the report's suggestion that every secondary school forms a three-year partnership with a local business to provide more training opportunities.

"We need to be realistic and ensure that any structures we create to bridge the worlds of education and work are flexible and focused on the needs of the business community - not bureaucratic and process-driven," the group's spokesperson said.

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