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Choose life. Choose a job. Part 1

On a recent trip to Scotland, I sat in a school’s home economics lab for the first time in over 30 years and talked with the warm, inimitable and hugely energetic teacher Elaine Gray. She’s lovely. I wish she had taught me. I have no doubt with Elaine’s help, I could have had Delia Smith’s career. 

Craigroyston school in Edinburgh has a high proportion of pupils with special educational needs or with additional support requirements, with many coming from families dubbed ‘generationally workless’. Historically large numbers of the school’s students would leave school in S5 (equivalent to Year 11 south of the border), ie, not continue in school to 18, but have no job, training or study opportunities to go to. The school made a conscious decision to improve ‘positive destinations’ for its pupils and has a clear vision of employability for all; the staff are committed to ensuring that all students leave with a clear pathway into further education, training or employment. 

Elaine is the dynamo of the initiative, developing relationships with students, finding them work placements with the opportunity to develop their workplace skills and, perhaps most critically, their self-esteem and ambition. Sometimes it means bunging them a bus fare or getting them kitted out with an outfit suitable for a job interview. Her commitment and pragmatic ‘can do’ ethic is as astonishing as it is humbling.

The outcome of this intensive help is equally astounding; 95% of students at Craigroyston now stay on till they’re 18. The school aims to ensure that every young person leaves with the skills and qualifications to take them to a sustainable destination whether that’s work, training, further or higher education. Because the Scottish curriculum is less driven by narrow exam results and places a greater value on positive destinations, the school is able to find enough flex in the Curriculum for Excellence to allow pupils to take five subjects instead of six. It frees up time for them to get valuable work experience and build their skills and their confidence.

Elaine is confident this works because she sees the results. ‘Remember Begbie?’ she asks a colleague with an incredulous upward inflexion in her voice and eyebrows raised skyward. ‘He works for British Gas now,’ she says proudly, adopting a wide smile. ‘He’s doing really well.’

‘When did getting a job become a bad outcome?’

Earlier this month, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said 46% of jobs – about 1.2 million – are at ‘high risk’ of automation by 2030.  Although, according to the PPR, Scotland is the highest-skilled nation in the UK, clearly the development of new technologies will demand new skills. Meeting these challenges will not only require opportunities for mid-career workers to up-skill and re-train, but pathways for young people like Begbie to develop their skills and aptitudes.  

In England, our EBacc suite of subjects – two English, maths, two sciences, a foreign language and  history or geography – which the former Government wanted 90% of young people to take, would have left Begbie with no room to find a route into employment with Elaine’s help. Low-attainers are at the highest risk of disengagement at school and a wholly academic diet is likely to exacerbate it.

Today (31 May 2017) the Office for National Statistics published its figures on employment and the labour market. They estimate there are 3 million ‘workless households’ in the UK. The impact on health outcomes, mental well-being, local communities and economies is well documented.

If we are serious about closing our national skills gap, enabling social mobility for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable and meeting the demands of a post-Brexit economy, we need the flexibility in our curriculum to enable all young people to fulfil their potential. 

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