David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Education and skills policies have fashions just like anything else.

Currently, the trend is to consider post-compulsory education (something that could cover higher and further education, apprenticeships, adult skills, work skills, prison education, and all kinds of related innovations) as a single sector.

The benefits this brings the learner could potentially include an easier way to understand and access what is on offer, and the ability to switch between what has always been seen as discrete pathways.

Funding – at appropriate levels, at appropriate times, in appropriate ways – is clearly key to this vision. But the other arm of this is planning. It is all very well for a minister or grandee to wave hands and insist the world matches up to the idea they are promulgating – a lot of technical and values-based decisions need to be made to make it happen.

There are many things to consider – the needs of regions and the nation as a whole, the experience and opportunities offered to learners against the requirements of employers, the whole question of advice and guidance and – not least – the amount of each kind of educational opportunity the government is willing to support.

Who is he (and what is he to you)?

This is the mess that James Withers – a former chief executive of lobby group Scotland Food and Drink – was invited to wade into back in September of last year. His report, delivered in the second week of June, makes recommendations that range from machinery of government stuff to digital portfolios and a common definition of success.

Since the Scottish Funding Council “coherence and stability” review back in 2021, it’s been clear that the funding councils’ support for higher and further education are gradually moving together. SFC took that opportunity to do some serious thinking about every aspect of provision it supports – and you can be sure that regional and skills (and regional skills) agendas featured.

The government responded to this review by committing to a clear purpose and principles for post-school education, research, and skills development. The commissioning of the Withers review aimed to address how workforce skills development could allow all learners to enjoy rewarding careers, and contribute to efforts to move the economy towards a net-zero basis. The original remit addressed specifically the skills delivery landscape in Scotland, focusing in particular on the work of another arm of the Scottish education and skills system – Skills Development Scotland (SDS).

SDS has always been a bit of a mixed bag, born of a 2008 merger (and a 2010 rationalisation) of organisations covering careers advice (the former Careers Scotland), employer skills needs, supporting skills delivery by providers of all sorts, apprenticeships, and numerous initiatives in related area – with a notably regional focus alongside a national skills planning role. It is very much positioned as an advisory and planning body, but it also acts a funding body for everything skills not in the SFC remit.

Use me

Withers’ report, as you may expect, goes heavy on the complex nature of skills provision more generally:

there is a lack of cohesive approach, common purpose, or strategic narrative joining [skills initiatives] together

While careful to note that the sector benefits from “a lot of good intentions, good ideas, knowledge and expertise, and successful initiatives or partnerships” he’s clear that whole is very much less than the sum of its parts – with SDS as an ostensible co-ordinating body largely being “left to evolve” since 2008 alongside changing skills demands, appetites, and narratives.

The usual thing – organically evolving remits as new issues emerge – has led to overlap and duplication, and there’s no sense that anyone has sat down to plan the environment we currently experience. Again, given that SDS has an explicit planning remit, this is a bit of a black mark for Monteith House – Withers echoes Audit Scotland in identifying “a lack of leadership and effective governance”.

The section on the learner experience is no less brutal. Withers talks about how service users:

struggle to know which of the many entry points to use or which narrative to adopt

As SDS has an office in most large towns, and a substantial web presence, designed exactly to help service users do this you can see what he is taking aim at here.

The point on language is a function of this fragmentation – despite the strength of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF), the divide between “vocational” and “academic” provision is widely misunderstood – suggesting “an individual either decides to pursue skills or an education”. Degree courses that lead to a specific professional occupation – law, medicine, and so on – are not seen as vocational, other courses that lead to a given job very much are. And for Withers, that needs to change (though he does note that this job has already been given to Louise Hayward’s review of qualifications and assessment, the final report of which was due last month).

And on advice and guidance the message is similarly uncomfortable – there are multiple sources and pathways, with an inbuilt assumption that some learners are more in need of advice than others (specifically those who are not engaged with education get more advice than those who may be engaged but on a sub-optimal route)

You can’t just smile it away

Funding policy wasn’t an explicit part of the review remit, but we do get an interesting intervention into the never-ending debate on Scottish higher education funding. Withers notes that a large portion of £3.2bn invested in post school provision flows to higher education and that this is a specific government choice, before opining:

as long as free tuition continues to be a core policy of Ministers in Scotland, extending the scope of financial support beyond those pursuing first degrees in universities or to those who already have benefitted from free provision, would be challenging

Otherwise, the mode is negative on short-term project and programme interventions – with short-lived schemes generally perceived as “bolt on” options that are lost when funding ends.

Likewise skills planning has been seen to struggle at a national and local level – there’s “valuable” work going on at SDS and SFC on skills alignment but this is now seen as “not optimal”. The issue seems to be one of priority setting and data collection – nobody seems to know what skills are needed (wide aims like “net zero” don’t really come with directions on what skills this might entail), and there’s confusion around which sectors and occupations are seen as priority and why. This confusion is compounded locally as national structures attempt to take local needs into account, while local bodies attempt to translate national plans into a local context.

Lovely day

Both SDS and SFC currently have roles in national skills planning. SDS, SFC, and the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS, which deals with student support grants and loans) all have a role handing out public funds to support skills. Meanwhile SDS also runs what is closest to a national careers service. Should the Scottish government accept Withers’ recommendations (there’s a broad statement accepting the direction of travel) this will change:

  • The planning function should be removed from SDS and SFC and brought back into the Scottish government.
  • The funding functions of SDS, SFC and (possibly) SAAS should merge into a single funding body.
  • There’s a new Scottish qualifications body on the way – and that will be responsible for accrediting everything post-school in terms of qualifications, skills frameworks, and occupational standards.
  • SDS will be substantially reformed to run a truly national careers service, reaching into schools, colleges, communities, and the workplace.
  • Enterprise agencies will support businesses with workforce planning.

These structural recommendations are accompanied by a number of cultural changes, focused on a single language and philosophy for understanding post-school provision, and a funding model founded on simplicity and parity of esteem. There’s also a call for a digital training record to connect to a “revitalised career service”.

Hello like before

The search for an animating philosophy and language to underpin government skills planning is something that has been talked about for a very long time. The closest we’ve come thus far is some of the language in Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET), but short of the usual list of future priorities – digital and cyber, leadership, collaboration and cooperation – it doesn’t really do the hard work that a plan would do. Stuff like:

“The precise shape of the changes are difficult to predict, but we do know that people will need to be adaptable and flexible

Is all well and good – and difficult to disagree with – but if you are going to have a planned system for skills provision you really need to do some planning: to decide what not to do and what not to do. Withers’ shuffle of agency remit parks this wicked problem back in central government.

Withers throwing around language like “needs-based” and asserting that “I think it is very difficult to plan for skills at a national level” doesn’t change the fact that somebody needs to decide what the future of work in Scotland is going to look like and design a system accordingly. Otherwise the fragmentary and demand driven system (with different bits pulling in different directions) that exists currently may be – whatever the response to recommendations turns out to be – the future of the system as well.

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