Rural Scotland - skills action plan: process evaluation 2019 to 2021

Main findings of an independent process evaluation of the skills action plan for Rural Scotland from 2019 to 2021.

Executive Summary


Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Government launched the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland (SAPRS): 2019-2021 in June 2019. The plan looked to co-ordinate and facilitate the development of skills required for jobs in rural areas, both currently and in the future. An Implementation Steering Group (ISG) was set up to drive forward the plan's activities, which were categorised into five priority areas for action[1], also referred to as "the five pillars":

  • Priority area A: Better understand the skills rural employers need and align provision to support this;
  • Priority area B: Provide individuals with accessible education and skills provision to secure, sustain and progress in their careers in rural areas;
  • Priority area C: Develop the current workforce in rural areas through upskilling and reskilling;
  • Priority area D: Build a secure pipeline for the future; and
  • Priority area E: Take a co-ordinated, strategic approach to tackling skills in rural areas.


This report presents the main findings of a process evaluation of the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland conducted in 2021-22 by IFF Research, with support from a Research Advisory Group consisting of Skills Development Scotland and Scottish Government representatives.

The process evaluation focused on three key research questions:

  • How effective has the Implementation Steering Group (ISG) been at driving actions?
  • To what extent has the SAPRS delivered on the five broad priority areas?
  • Has the creation of SAPRS contributed to additional activity or investment?

The evaluation method consisted of a literature review and 30 qualitative in-depth interviews with members of the Implementation Steering Group and a group of wider stakeholders representing organisations involved in activities contained within the plan (see Annex A).

This report sets out the evaluation findings by research question. A summary of the main findings is included in the next section.

Evaluation findings

Effectiveness and impact of the Implementation Steering Group

The Implementation Steering Group (ISG) has been effective at driving action in a number of ways. Overall, the main added value of the group for stakeholders was that it has acted as a focal point for the rural Scotland skills agenda. It has brought together individuals and organisations with similar areas of expertise, who were experiencing similar challenges, connecting local, regional and national interests. In particular it is:

  • Raising the profile of the skills issues of ISG members' own sector or region;
  • Increasing understanding of the challenges faced by partners operating in other sectors or regions and potential solutions;
  • Generating new opportunities or solutions through collaboration; and
  • Disseminating, showcasing and promoting SAPRS activities via external communications and marketing activities.

Progress by priority area

Considerable progress has been made across all priority areas of the SAPRS, including skills insights and barriers in rural Scotland, skills interventions, skills support and promotional activity. These activities now have a much greater emphasis on the skills needs of rural Scotland, in part due to the cross-sector co-ordination central to the SAPRS.

Priority area A: To better understand the skills rural employers need and align provision to support this.

Clear progress has been made across the various activities planned in priority area A, although this has been slower than intended due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Key developments enhanced by the SAPRS include the Skills Assessment for Rural Scotland and tailored links to the underpinning Data Matrix, a variety of ISG-led or supported research, and the first Rural Business Panel Survey. These provide more nuanced, tailored and accessible insights into the skills needs of rural Scotland.

Priority area B: To provide individuals with accessible education and skills provision to secure, sustain and progress in their careers in rural areas.

With respect to raising awareness, a key focus has been promoting the value of apprenticeships in rural areas, for example through the Scottish Apprenticeship Week campaign and case studies that ISG members have supported. Other activity has sought to make it easier for individuals to find opportunities in rural areas that are suitable for them. Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and partners have also piloted more flexible models of apprenticeship delivery, thereby enhancing their accessibility, while the South of Scotland Skills and Learning Network seeks to improve access to learning opportunities. While there has been valuable progress, some of these schemes are still in their infancy and do not cut across all sectors and regions of the rural economy. Therefore, their impact on the rural economy as a whole might take time to materialise.

Priority area C: To develop the current workforce in rural areas through upskilling and reskilling.

Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted some of the planned activity, a range of activities are in place to develop the workforce in rural areas, and there is evidence that the SAPRS has contributed to a number of these activities. Key activities within this priority area include the development of the Rural Employers' Toolkit; enhancement of the Skills for Growth service to support rural areas; the Skills Discovery tool on Our Skillsforce; and enhanced careers information support. Activity has covered a range of sectors and skills specialisms, although a couple of ISG members considered that more could be done in certain areas, including a more strategic approach to developing environmental skills.

Priority area D: To build a secure pipeline for the future.

Overall, there has been mixed progress towards priority area D. Progress has been made on careers advice and enhancing work-based learning pathways. SDS have made good use of digital platforms for both of these, by for example creating an internal Yammer page for colleagues to share resources, and publishing case studies and holding online events to promote employment opportunities in rural areas.

Activity around promoting careers opportunities was adapted due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and this rapidly changing context.

The evidence review on creating a more diverse workforce was paused due to coronavirus (COVID-19), but work on understanding the barriers continued as it was a priority for Government-led COVID-19 data. Nevertheless there are various activities occurring at a more local or sectoral level promoting diversity within the rural economy.

Priority area E: To take a coordinated, strategic approach to tackling skills in rural areas.

Overall, good progress has been made toward priority area E. The most significant development has been the development of the Implementation Steering Group. The cross-sector, cross-region, and multi-agency approach to this group has been central to ensuring a co-ordinated approach to tacking skills in rural areas. However, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and its impact on a range of organisations, has meant that other planned, strategic-focused activities sitting within priority area E have been paused or adapted.

The SAPRS' contribution to additional activity and investment

The SAPRS was not intended to create strands of new activity, but to bring together and raise the profile of existing activities. There is substantial evidence from the research that it has achieved this aim and that the plan has been fundamental in improving the quality of, and raising awareness around, existing skills interventions.

This research found that the SAPRS has added value to Scotland's rural economy in three key areas:

  • Providing a fresh focus on the skills needs of the rural economy;
  • Enabling collaboration and partnership opportunities; and
  • Raising the profile of skills needs in rural areas.

Together, these three benefits have helped wider stakeholders to understand the importance of considering rural needs in their decision-making in skills interventions.

The skills landscape has evolved quickly since the launch of the SAPRS, and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in particular has contributed to new skills challenges. The SAPRS has enabled relevant stakeholders to be more responsive to these challenges, and support the skills needs of the rural economy accordingly. However, some stakeholders felt that more could be done to align the plan to other strategic activities, such as the Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan, published in December 2020.

Looking to the future, stakeholders from both the Implementation Steering Group (ISG) and those outside the ISG would like to see the SAPRS continue. Some felt it should continue in its current form while others would like to see more focus on specific cross-cutting areas such as digital skills or the environment. Embedding a flexible approach to any future iteration of the SAPRS, so it could continue to respond to emerging and changing needs, was seen as critical.


The evidence from this evaluation demonstrates that a wealth of activity has occurred since the development of SAPRS that – as a result of the coordinated approach underpinning the plan – has seen an increased focus on the needs of the rural economy. While the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic slowed progress, the plan has ensured that skills intelligence, skills provision, careers guidance and promotional work contain a stronger emphasis on the skills needs of the rural economy. Any future iteration of the plan might consider widening the types of skills it covers, focusing support and activities on particular demographics, and aligning more closely to other government strategies.



Back to top