UK youth unemployment data for this quarter shows a 2.1% decrease on the previous quarter but at 16.9% for 16-24 year olds is still above that of the general population. Couple this with employers' views that the barriers to recruiting young people are a lack of appropriate skills (63%) and experience (61%) it is perhaps not surprising that devolved governments have commissioned expert working groups to find a solution to youth unemployment whilst addressing prevailing skills shortages within the labour market.
Scotland like the rest of the UK is committed to reducing the levels of youth unemployment and in recent months there has been a raft of announcements detailing current and future proposed strategies to effect positive economic and financial benefits whilst supporting improved attainment and increased employment of young people.
This month saw the announcement by Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing detailing that the NHS will recruit 500 new Modern Apprenticeships across the next three years and there is an expectation of a further pledge by John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, to create 30,000 MAs in Scotland by 2020.
Cynics may believe that a key driver for these initiatives is the looming vote on Scotland's Independence and indeed in recent week's employment has taken centre stage of said debate. However, in January 2013 the Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce was established by the Scottish Government and tasked with bringing forward a range of recommendations designed to improve young people's transition into employment.
The Commission recommended a 'culture shift' in the education system of Scotland leading to a parity between University and vocational training to enable more young Scots into work and thereby reduce the jobless rate which is almost double that of the average working age.
The report has highlighted that qualifications including Scottish Vocational Qualifications, 'Skills for Work' and Modern Apprenticeships are crucial if Scottish youth unemployment is to be effectively reduced. Currently the college sector involvement in the Modern Apprenticeships programme is predominantly via subcontracting of training to varying degrees dependent upon the individual employer. Looking to the future, there is a desire from within the college sector for an increased scope in the apprenticeship programme with a view to ensuring a minimum level of training and increased consistency in terms of quality of experience.
The inconsistent quality of apprenticeship experiences and lack of advanced level routes has been acknowledged as an area for improvement, despite 87% of apprentices stating they were satisfied or very satisfied with their apprenticeship. Within the UK more generally with Dr Martin Allen and Professor Patrick Ainley from the University of Greenwich recently stated that the majority of apprenticeships are 'low skilled' and 'dead end' and a recent report has found that 14 % of apprentices were receiving no training at all. However, Matthew Hancock, the UK Minister for Skills and Enterprise, explained that the government is focused on improving the quality of the apprenticeship scheme and has stripped out nearly 200,000 apprenticeships that don't meet 'tough new standards'.
Similarly, a commitment to ensuring high quality apprenticeship provision in Scotland is echoed in the Wood Commission report with the recommendation that Education Scotland assumes responsibility for the programme, enabling the development of an external Quality Assurance programme. Thus, there appears to be consensus regarding the need to improve quality; implement minimum standards and ensure consistency within apprenticeship programmes across the UK. As yet there has been limited comment on the potential mechanisms for embedding, creating and sharing standards and training materials to realise this. So the question is how can this be done? How can these improvements be made?
The Government's aspiration to increase the amount of content delivered online to 10% by the end of the 2014-15 academic year, and to 50% by 2017 highlights the value and benefits associated with online resources particularly when shared effectively via repositories, hubs or other digital platforms and could possibly be the solution.
Open technologies can provide learning tools, systems and aids that are standardised and accessible to all in any location. These include:
• Workflows – that support an automated review process enabling resources to be quality assured by subject experts
• Targeted resource discovery systems – that enable efficiencies and enhance user experience
• Accessible and mobile friendly interfaces – which mean the potential for any place anytime access for users
• Digital repositories - which can be an effective means for sharing and accessing quality digital resources.
One example of where this type of system is currently working is Jorum, the largest repository in the UK and an instrumental feature of the Jisc FE and Skills Window. This project is creating a Digital Window to enable simple, flexible and easy to navigate routes to Jisc digital content, allowing learners access to the same materials and opportunities.
Alternatively, it may be that a more bespoke solution, possibly modelled on the Education-Net online resource website, is required to ensure both efficiencies and quality of training materials are standardised and available for Modern Apprenticeship programmes.
Regardless of if these suggestions are the solution, I certainly believe that technology holds the answer to improving apprenticeships and ensuring that all gain the same standard of education and support whilst training. We are certainly working hard at Jisc-Mimas to find an answer and lead on a future development which will encompass all elements of further education, vocational learning and apprenticeships.
Susanne Boyle is senior manager learning, teaching and professional skills, project director -Jisc FE and Skills Window Jisc-Mimas, a part of Jisc