Many of those of us in England won’t have noticed the release of the final report of the Wood Commission. However, I think that it is worthy of note, because it probably offers one of the most systematic attempts to think about the education and employment system in the UK. In many ways it echoes the findings of a host of similar reports, but it uses a wider canvas than many of its equivalents in England.
The Commission sought to develop a strategy for Scotland to support young people to be work ready as they leave the education system. This tasked was framed around three main policy goals.
- A desire to minimise failed transitions and to support social and economic inclusion.
- A desire to ensure that the Scottish economy works effectively, that the right skills are available, that potential is harnessed and productivity increased.
- The hope that an improved education and employment system would in turn contribute to a more equal society.
The Commission builds on Curriculum for Excellence (which I wrote about back in 2010) to try and look at how education and employment in Scotland can be better aligned. In essence both Wood and CfE look at how education can support the economy without it becoming narrowly utilitarian. I have always felt that the aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence were really worthy, although I’ve noted that the implementation has been somewhat more difficult than might have been originally imagined.
The Wood Commission therefore builds on this landscape of educational experimentation to suggest some ways forward for Scotland. As might be expected there is some familiar ground here, with key messages including:
- Lots of talk about “parity of esteem” between university and vocational routes.
- Enhancing work experience for young people while they are at school.
- Better careers information, advice and guidance. Although one particularly distinctive message is that the Wood Commission sees an enhanced role for teachers in this space.
- Maintaining Colleges as focused on vocational education rather than allowing them to drift into being university-lite.
- Reinvigorating Apprenticeships.
- The need to revive the moribund youth labour market and encourage employers to employ more school and college leavers.
- A more collaborative education landscape where colleges and schools work together to ensure the best outcomes for young people.
- Stronger education/employment partnership including participation in college governance, provision of work experience and careers advice, collaboration in curriculum development, the development of real life business projects for students and the input of industry to teaching.
The Wood Commission was far more wide ranging than many of the reports that I’ve been writing for the last five years or so, but there are a number of points of overlap, in particular with arguments that we made in Careers 2020 and Fostering Career and College Readiness: young people should be encouraged to think about their futures from an early age, they should have access to a range of experiences to help them to do this, access to information, advice and guidance and a strong connection between their subject-based curriculum and their career learning. Wood rehearses many of these points and suggests that there is a need for a new standard to ensure good quality career guidance and work-related learning.
It also goes on to argue for more structural changes to the education system. This is not just about career education but also about the development of new and stronger vocational pathways within the school and college system. Beyond this it is important to develop the Apprenticeship system to allow clearer and more prestigious progression routes for the young people who take those routes. Finally it also call for incentives and campaigns to engage employers with young people.
The Wood Commission is very clear that the development of these new career and vocational opportunities should be available to all young people regardless of race, gender, disability or other equality strand.
So far, so good. This kind of stuff is very much what a lot of us have been hoping would happen in the UK for a long time. However, the real question is whether the ideas of the Wood Commission can actually get any traction and drive real change in Scotland. Despite the idealism of Curriculum for Excellence, the jury remains out – so can Wood lead towards a sea change in Scotland?
Scottish Government certainly welcomed the report and quickly found £4.5 million to implement it (Labour quickly moved to say that it wasn’t enough). The report was also welcomed by a number of other stakeholders such as Business in the Community, the Scottish Youth Parliament, the Career Development Institute and the Education Institute Scotland. Education Scotland have been given the key role in implementing the Wood Commission report in Scotland’s schools alongside Skills Development Scotland. The twin challenges of engaging both the education system and employers shouldn’t be under-estimated but Scotland has a number of unique opportunities that means that I might be setting aside my usual pessimism.
Scotland might just be able to pull off something like this for a number of reasons. These include the relatively high level of political consensus that exists in the country around these kinds of issues. If you put the question of independence to one side (and I think that we have just done that for a few years at least), then Labour and the SNP aren’t really all that different. Secondly the size of the country’s population means that catalysing change is somewhat easier than in England. As Ronald Sultana notes small states are not just scaled down versions of large states. The change in scale brings changes in the nature of social capital and the distance between the political class and the rest of the population. This may make it considerably easier to achieve lasting change in Scotland.
More recently the development of Curriculum for Excellence (with Education Scotland as the agent of change) and the multi-headed careers and skills organisation that is Skills Development Scotland all offer huge opportunities for advancing the cause of career and vocational education in Scotland. While it is important to remember that the German vocational education system has been built over hundreds of years, we shouldn’t let this blind us to the possibility of building lasting change in education systems that have had weaker vocational traditions. At the moment it feels like a lot of the ducks are in a row. Whether, in the aftermath of Wood, the advocates of career and vocational education will be able to capitalise on this and catalyse real change remains to be seen.