With strong evidence showing the benefits for people and businesses, coupled with pressure on public finances, there’s a compelling case for a strong, ambitious apprenticeship programme, says Skills Development Scotland’s Chair Frank Mitchell

RECENT months have seen much discussion on how we best ensure Scotland has a strong and thriving education and skills system that works for everyone.

This interest, ignited by a number of reviews and far-reaching proposals to reform education and post-school skills, presents a real opportunity to build a system fit for the future.

And while opinions differ on how best to achieve this, common themes have emerged, including the need to ensure that a wider range of educational pathways are valued and accessible.

In this context apprenticeships are a unifying theme. 

For many years Scotland has benefited from cross-party political support for apprenticeships and the value they bring to individuals, employers and the economy.

Since 2008, the Scottish Government has invested in strategic expansion of Modern Apprenticeships, introduced Foundation Apprenticeships for school pupils and Graduate Apprenticeships for qualifications up to degree level.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose landmark recommendations around school education remain a primary driver of reform, have recognised the Scottish Government’s commitment to apprenticeships, stating in 2022:

“The Scottish apprenticeship system has made remarkable progress, becoming one of the most flexible and wide-ranging systems in the OECD.”

Whilst there is much to celebrate through this decade of expansion and endorsement, there are some misperceptions that concern me as we consider the future of the skills system.

The first of those is a perception that apprenticeships are only accessed by Scotland’s large employers.  

It’s true that many large companies are major apprentice employers.

However, the reality is that over 90% of apprentice employers are small to medium enterprises. 

Over 50% are micro-businesses that employ fewer than ten people. Any perception that apprenticeships aren’t used by or open to SMEs just doesn’t bear scrutiny.

The second is that apprenticeships don’t lead to sustained good quality careers.  

Again, the evidence to the contrary is unequivocal. 91% are still in employment six months after completing. Over 80% have progressed to a better job. Over 80% of apprentice employers pay the real living wage as a minimum.  

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Similarly, our public discourse around the skills system often fails to acknowledge the unique economic imperative for apprenticeships that comes from employer co-investment.

Government pays for the training. This leverages investment from employers, paying the apprentice’s salary, additional training and support. The latest evidence demonstrates that every £1 of public funding leverages as much as £10 investment from the employer.

On top of that, because apprentices are employed, many of them are paying income tax, returning money directly back into the public purse. Not to mention the tax paid by many Scottish employers through the apprentice levy.

With Audit Scotland recently quoting a projected annual shortfall in the Scottish Government budget of over £1.0 billion, this ‘system thinking’ around the economic imperative for apprenticeships is surely compelling.

The concept of ‘parity of esteem’ between different forms of learning has been a consistent theme for decades, and it comes up again across multiple recent reviews.

By now, few would argue that we need to recognise and value all forms of learning, whether that’s university, college, apprenticeships or any other high-quality pathway to employment. 

But by placing such an emphasis on the need to continue changing perceptions, we do risk missing an equally important point – parity of access.

Recent evidence from UCAS and a range of other sources is clear that too many people who do value and want an apprenticeship can’t access them because they aren’t available. 

This is perhaps not surprising when we consider the relative investment and scale of apprenticeships vs other pathways. 

Representing just 2% of Scotland’s £3.4bn investment in skills and education, there are around 45,000 apprentices in training – that’s equivalent to one large college or university.  To put that in perspective, Scotland has around 40 colleges and universities.

We know that demand for apprenticeships is currently greater than the training funding available. 

And with such pressure on public finances, it’s imperative that money is spent wisely. 

In the context of Scotland’s significant investment in skills, I would propose the share for apprenticeships, that deliver real jobs aligned to economic need, needs to grow to meet demand.

As we look to the future, my appeal is that we respond to the evidence by investing more of that £3.4bn into an ambitious growing apprenticeship programme.



Push for parents to guide children on their career choices

NEW research shows that parents are way more influential than they think when it comes to education, jobs and training.

The research, carried out by SDS, shows that only 20 per cent of parents believe they can influence their children when it comes to career choices, while 78 per cent of children see parents as the ultimate influencers when it comes to their future options.

The Herald:  Skills Development Scotland is always here to help, day in day out, well beyond Scottish Careers Week

The surprising news for parents that children really do listen means that mums, dads and carers need to make sure they are really up to speed with the many opportunities available in the modern working world.

Sharon McIntyre, Head of Career, Information, Advice and Guidance (CIAG) at SDS, said: “The contrast between how influential parents really are, versus how much they think they are is stark.

“The world of work has never been so fast-moving, and we want to make sure parents and carers have every opportunity to get involved with our services to help them understand the extensive, and ever-changing options that are available out there.”

The research findings were released to coincide with Scottish Careers Week which took place last week. 

The event is designed to promote the support available to parents, carers and young people looking for career advice.

Led by SDS and supported by schools, colleges, universities and employers, the themed week saw more than 200 events take place right across Scotland.

Sharon continued: “Although Scottish Careers Week was the perfect way to get to know our full offer, we want to reassure parents and carers they are definitely not alone when it comes to supporting their children. We are here to help, day in day out, in a time and way which suits them and their family circumstances well beyond Scottish Careers Week.

“We have a career adviser in every state secondary school who parents or carers can speak to. 

“You can also speak to our advisers in our career centres and in community venues right across the country. People can phone us during office hours on 0800 917 8000, and we have online support 24 hours a day through myworldofwork.co.uk. Our career services are for everyone and they’re free.”

Other findings from the important research include the fact around a fifth of parents and carers are not aware of the huge range of apprenticeship on offer (as well as their associated benefits), and only 23% would think to speak directly to employers about future careers. 

Sharon added: “There is still a job to be done by businesses, in partnership with SDS, to really get out there and promote all the opportunities available in all the different sectors, particularly in relations to apprenticeships. 

“Work-based learning really is one of the most effective ways of filling vacancies while giving young people an opportunity to flourish in the world of work.”  

A fuller briefing on the Parent and Carers Voice research can be found at bit.ly/SDSparentvoice