Apprentice school - inspiring the next workforce

Written by Tom Freeman on 1 June 2015 in Feature

Plugging skills gaps of the future

Scotland's skills gaps will not be addressed by short-term fixes alone. Shifting attitudes and culture at school is required.

As well as attempts to link school careers advice and industry, more practical ways to inspire future generations are being explored.

Part of the Government’s new £3.8m funding for modern apprentices will be used to expand foundation apprenticeships, or ‘pathfinders’, which see pupils opt to do an apprenticeship instead of one of their Highers. The idea has been piloted in two local authorities this year, and it will be rolled out to a further 17 councils in the next academic year.


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Skills Development Scotland chief executive Damien Yeates believes the academic learning in a foundation apprenticeship will prove to be “greater than a Higher”, but it will take time to convince parents. In the pilot schemes it has been sold as ‘added value’ for the time being. 

“Imagine if you can say, ‘tell you what, I’ll drop the Higher in origami I was going to do, and I’ll do the first year in an apprenticeship in coding’, because you can do a software apprenticeship, and get an academic tariff as good as a Higher,” he says.

The number of foundation apprentices is expected to increase from 72 to 400 during the rollout, focusing on six priority sectors: engineering, construction, energy, social services and healthcare, financial services, and children and young people.  Thirteen college partners will also be involved.

Communication between education and industry is also a primary function of Scotland’s innovation centres, but interestingly, only around half of them have skills programmes. 

One sector which has traditionally looked for high-level graduates rather than training up its own specialists is life sciences, and the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) held its own skills conference recently to find out what support they could give industry at all levels of the education pathway to get the workforce the industry needs. 


IBioIC skills programme manager Dr Judith Huggan says the challenge is broad-ranging because Industrial Biotechnology (IB) is a broad sector, encompassing chemistry, life sciences and engineering. “We are spanning the educational pipeline with our skills programme, so we’re going at it from STEM, modern apprenticeships, HND through to Masters and PhD level. We’re trying to be as broad as possible,” she says.

Encouraging STEM in younger years is crucial, she says, particularly when her industry is not fully understood. She has been working with schools in North Ayrshire to make them aware of local industry, and what a career in IB might look like. 
“First and foremost, it’s about making them aware of what the subject is, because that’s not immediately obvious. Engineering you think, OK, building a bridge or something, but life sciences, because it’s so broad, people don’t have specific examples in their head, so it’s important we make those examples really cool, so kids remember” she says.

Huggan offers the example of a genetically modified goat, modified so it produces spider silk fibres from its milk. “From this silk you make Kevlar vests, bulletproof vests. From goat’s milk. How cool is that? That’s biotechnology – taking an organism and genetically modifying it so it produces something that is a high value chemical. You’re not harming the molecule or the goat in any way – it’s called spider goat.”

The long-term goal for Huggan is to work out why there isn’t more interest. Biotechnology materials are being incorporated into the new Higher, she says, and so pupils are not engaging with it or understanding it and teachers have probably “not met the material before”.

She aims to work with the schools on a teaching toolkit, and engage further with industry in the local area. “North Ayrshire has a really big sector for us in biotechnology because you’ve got companies such as GSK, DSM, UPM, all within a 20-mile radius of each other. OK, they might only employ six or seven hundred people, but that’s six or seven hundred highly skilled people. So I think there’s an opportunity there to improve outreach so school children are aware of science happening in their local area,” she says.

Fife was one of the pilot areas for the foundation apprenticeships schemes, where Fife College was already leading a STEM strategy on employability, after it had failed to find adequately qualified apprentices requested by a large local employer. A focus on STEM was introduced at all levels, a year before the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce recommended it. The challenging thing about engaging industry, according to Fife College’s Janet McCauslin, is not its willingness to get involved but the differing targets of different public bodies. “Whether it’s DWP, or SDS, or schools, or the college, we all have targets to meet, and trying to coordinate that is a challenge,” she says.

Schools were identified which might embrace the notion of work-based learning, all of which were in areas of multiple deprivation. Around 40 pupils from five schools – Lochgelly, Buckhaven, Kirkland, Auchmuty and Kirkcaldy – started apprenticeships with Fife College in October 2014. Pupils attend college for two half-days per week for two years, and also complete a placement with an engineering employer.

Carol Ann Penrose-Campbell, headteacher at Lochgelly High School, says some difficult decisions were necessary on making the curriculum more flexible, allowing two whole afternoons per week on ‘wider achievement’ such as work-based learning. “That is the thing which has actually made the difference in allowing us to engage with partners effectively. It’s allowed us to exploit the opportunities Fife College and other partners have brought our way.

"If as headteachers we’re saying we want a skills-based curriculum, that we believe in Curriculum for Excellence, then we need to put our money where our mouth is and make these difficult decisions about the curriculum models. It wasn’t easy in the school at the time. You arrive in February and you tell a whole school community you’re going to change the structure of the day in June, it does not make you popular.”

The employability and skills programme in the school builds resilience, knowledge and access to networks, says Penrose-Campbell, because of the links built with industry. 
Industry not only needs to engage with schools, according to Skills Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, it also needs to “step up” to invest in training and communicate better with government.

“One of the things Sir Ian Wood said when he did the Wood Commission – and he could say because he was an employer – he said employers haven’t really been stepping up in the way he thought they should. It was a challenge Sir Ian Wood laid down to employers. Because we don’t want to get to a situation in four or five years’ time when some sector pops up who hasn’t been talking to us and says ‘by the way, we’ve got this massive skills gap, we want you to fix it’.”

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