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.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland was created in 2019, with a view to developing the skills required for jobs in rural areas in Scotland. Since its creation, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, along with other events and policy changes, has contributed to a fundamental shift in the landscape that has affected skills delivery and needs within rural Scotland.


This report presents the findings of an independent process evaluation of the Skills Action Plan for Rural Scotland (SAPRS): 2019-2021, conducted by IFF Research on behalf of Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and the Scottish Government in 2021-22. This chapter provides an introduction to the SAPRS, outlining its background, focus, structure, and the evolving context within which it sits. It has been informed by the SAPRS full report, and other skills and policy publications.


There are a range of issues that contribute to both direct and indirect impacts on skills within rural Scotland. These relate to demographic challenges, economic output, productivity and employment, among other areas[2]. In response to these impacts, the Scottish Government made a commitment in 2017/18 to develop a skills action plan for rural Scotland[3]. This resulted in SDS and the Scottish Government launching the SAPRS: 2019-2021 in June 2019[4]. The SAPRS focuses on developing the skills required for jobs in rural areas within Scotland through education, training and re-skilling. Activity within the SAPRS largely builds on existing work that was already underway across rural Scotland, either through individual partners or through interventions that the Scottish Government had previously put in place. It was intended to bring together a range of actions to meet the current and future skills required for jobs in rural areas. A key mechanism of the SAPRS was the creation of an Implementation Steering Group[5] (ISG) as a focal point for the delivery of the plan, bringing together representatives of organisations with an interest and expertise in the broad range of rural skills.

In defining the term 'rural', the SAPRS uses the Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) classification[6]. This groups local authorities based on their relative degree of rurality, with the SAPRS focussing on areas defined as 'Mainly Rural'[7] or 'Islands and Remote'[8]. The definition of "rural skills" as applied to the SAPRS covers a wide range of skills across the full breadth of the rural economy.


The SAPRS sets out a partnership approach to developing the skills and talent needed to ensure that Scotland's rural economy and communities continue to flourish and grow. It focuses on five priority areas for action, 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.


Since the launch of the SAPRS in 2019, Scotland has faced unprecedented challenges. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began in early 2020, around six months after the inaugural meeting of the full ISG. This has had a significant impact on the rural economy, skills needs and skills delivery[9]. The most recent Rural Scotland Business Panel[10] survey revealed the challenges that rural businesses have been navigating during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. These include shortages of trained and skilled employees, inflation and increased costs, record fuel prices and disruption to the wider supply chain.

Within the Government's Programme for Scotland 2020-21[11], Scottish Government set clear priorities for mitigating the economic, health, and social consequences of the pandemic. The programme set out a strategy to help create "new jobs, good jobs and green jobs" and to work with employers and individuals to build the skills and infrastructure required in the future. The National Transition Training Fund[12] was launched by the Scottish Government in 2020 to support individuals over 25 years old who had been made redundant or were at risk of redundancy, as well as supporting the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. In addition, the Young Person Guarantee[13] sought to connect every 16–24-year-old in Scotland to some form of opportunity, be this employment, apprenticeship, education or volunteering.

The move towards remote working in some roles and sectors has reduced travelling costs and time, and widened opportunities for working or learning in other parts of the country, potentially helping to improve access to a wider range of jobs and learning opportunities in rural areas[14]. It has however had the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities in digital connectivity and mobile coverage across rural Scotland, thus reducing employment and training opportunities for rural communities[15].

The other defining event of this period has been the UK's exit from the EU, with the UK's participation in EU free movement ending on 1 January 2021. The Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population estimated that this would result in a 50-80% drop in new EU migration to Scotland, with a disproportionate effect on rural areas, placing pressure on labour supply[16]. While it is still too early to assess the impact on labour supply of the UK's exit from the EU, in addition to the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there is evidence that it is contributing to more restricted labour markets, and growing skills shortages in Scotland[17].

This rapidly changing economic landscape and its impact on individuals, businesses and sectors has in turn impacted on the proposed actions set out in the SAPRS, and the approach taken by the ISG. This is explored in more detail later in the report.



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