The impact of work-based learning can be transformational for young people – improving attainment, providing equity of opportunity and helping pupils achieve their potential, writes Vincent Docherty, Head of Education at Aberdeenshire Council.


THERE has long been debate about the distinction to be drawn between vocational and academic learning. However, in Aberdeenshire Council the focus is on what is best for our learners; what will ensure our pupils can achieve their full potential.

That’s why we have embraced Foundation Apprenticeships, which offer senior phase pupils the opportunity to mix work-based learning with their other subjects.

Throughout the pandemic, councils, schools, pupils and employers have faced challenges none of us could ever have predicted.

While we take careful steps towards recovery, many pupils are continuing on a journey of work-based learning which has been sustained throughout the past 18 months. Since becoming a lead provider of Foundation Apprenticeships in 2019, provision has grown from around 30 students in 2018 to now over 440 Foundation Apprentices at SCQF Level 6. Our approach ensures that Foundation Apprenticeships have parity of esteem with Highers. 

This isn’t just in a theoretical or conceptual sense – it’s tangible.

Foundation Apprenticeships are a subject choice offer and are timetabled as a school would any other Higher or senior phase course.

And the impact has been transformational. Pupils who complete Foundation Apprenticeships are more likely to go on to positive destinations after school, such as Modern or Graduate Apprenticeship jobs, college or university. 

Last year, 94.7 per cent of school leavers in Aberdeenshire went on to a positive destination. For school leavers who had completed a Foundation Apprenticeship, this figure increased to 98.1 per cent. Not only do pupils who complete a Foundation Apprenticeship get a head-start in their career, it also raises overall attainment and helps close the deprivation related attainment gap.

Across all Aberdeenshire school leavers, the average Insight Tariff Points is 940, whilst for pupils who completed a Foundation Apprenticeship, this figure increases by over 50 per cent.


Crucially, this increase is across all socio-economic groups, with school leavers from the most deprived backgrounds seeing the greatest increase in attainment.

Equity and equality of opportunity is vital. We consider Foundation Apprenticeships to be a universal offer for all pupils, giving them the skills and experience they need to realise their potential.

By providing a more meaningful curriculum and learning pathway for young people, we’ve seen increased engagement from young people learning through Foundation Apprenticeships.

Pupils tell us that they enjoy the balance between the classroom theory and work-based learning which leads to more productive learning.

Schools report back that they are seeing increased re-engagement across other subjects. The benefits for pupils in Aberdeenshire replicate national trends.

Research shows that pupils choosing Foundation Apprenticeships report improved skills that will not only help them in the future but are helping them now to achieve in their other subjects.

Nationally, of the pupils surveyed completing Foundation Apprenticeships at SCQF level 6, 95 per cent reported improved communication skills; 87 per cent reported improved problem-solving skills and 80 per cent reported increased levels of creativity. In Aberdeenshire, feedback from young people and their parents has been strong; 91 per cent of pupils who completed a Foundation Apprenticeship were satisfied with the experience whilst 92 per cent of parents said they would recommend a Foundation Apprenticeship to others.

The local economy will also see the benefits of work-based learning for senior phase pupils.

Foundation Apprenticeships are fostering stronger links between business and education, helping to ensure that local employers can play a more active role in developing the young workforce.

Across Aberdeenshire, businesses of all sectors and sizes support Foundation Apprenticeships, including food manufacturers Mackie’s of Scotland and construction firm Robertson Group.

They have seen the benefits first-hand and tell us that Foundation Apprenticeships give them the opportunity to inspire the next generation, securing the skills they need for the future.

Looking ahead, we are ambitious.

As a local authority, we see Foundation Apprenticeships and work-based learning at the core of our curriculum offer in Aberdeenshire.

The continued growth of Foundation Apprenticeships is due to the partnership between the council, schools, learning providers and employers.

Our success didn’t happen overnight; it’s a result of hard work and investment. And it is worth it.

The ambition and commitment behind Foundation Apprenticeships means improved outcomes for young people, the community, and our local economy.



SINCE it started delivering Foundation Apprenticeships in 2019, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has continued to grow its opportunities and enrolled 78 pupils at the start of this academic year.

The authority works closely with local education providers and has developed a customised Foundation Apprenticeship timetable with all four Western Isles secondary schools.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar also works closely with local employers to ensure that all Foundation Apprentices gain quality work experience and a positive classroom experience. 

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) Director for Education, Uilleam Macdonald said: “Last month, the Creative and Digital Media Foundation Apprenticeship class commenced their work experience placement at An Lanntair arts centre. This was a significant moment for the authority following more than a year of virtual placements.

“During this difficult time the success of the programme has relied on the creativity, dedication and support of the authority’s training officers.


“This young person-centred approach complies with the 10-year corporate vocational education strategy, based on the principles of equity, personalisation and choice and labour market intelligence. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has achieved the highest outcomes in terms of vocational educational attainment rate of 32 local authorities for each of the seven years of the Developing the Young Workforce’s (DYW) national Young Employment Strategy.”

Currently, the council delivers eight Foundation Apprenticeship frameworks and, during a visit to the Western Isles in August, Jamie Hepburn MSP, Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, met with pupils taking the Creative and Digital Media and Childcare frameworks.

Following the completion of her Social Services Children and Young People Foundation Apprenticeship, Mairi Macmillan of Benbecula has taken up a position as a Modern Apprentice with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

 The former Sgoil Lionacleit pupil is now working at Balivanich Nursery. Mairi said: “I have always wanted a career in childcare and when I saw the option to study a Foundation Apprenticeship I jumped at the chance. Putting the skills and knowledge I have learnt in class into practice within a work placement has helped me so much.”

Amy Emmott completed the Gaelic Creative and Digital Media Foundation Apprenticeship course and is now a Digital Assistant Modern Apprentice with Dundee City Council.

Amy said: “I’ve had the chance to work with and interview experts in the field while learning how to use the Adobe suite and operate professional cameras.

“This course helped me find something that I’m passionate about and really enjoy.”

The Gaelic delivery of the course allowed Amy to develop her ability to communicate effectively in the language.

While in the Western Isles, Jamie Hepburn MSP took time to officially open the Western Isles Employability Hub.

Situated in Stornoway Town Hall, the hub plays host to the training, education, and development of young people of the Western Isles.

The Employability Hub and DYW-Live, operated nationally by CnES, provide equity of provision throughout Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra and beyond.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Chair of Education, Skills and Children Services, Councillor Paul Steele said: “All Foundation Apprentices sit within the Western Isles Employability Hub.

“Through Developing the Young Workforce Outer Hebrides they have a link to employers across the Western Isles; through SDS they are offered career support and guidance; through the No One Left Behind and Young Person’s Guarantee teams they can access training, funding, information, and support.”


This article is brought to you in association with Skills Development Scotland as part of The Herald Future of Education campaign