SQW, in partnership with Young Scot, was commissioned by the Scottish Government to co-design and deliver research into young people's experience of the education and training system in Scotland.
Methodology and approach
There were four main stages involved in the study:
- Document review – a desk review of existing data, evidence and research pertaining to young people's experience of the education and learning system in Scotland was carried out to inform the research design.
- Establishment of Insights Panel – a panel of 12 young people aged between 17 and 23 was set up to co-design the research and provide input and guidance throughout.
- Workshops – a total of 14 three-hour long workshops were delivered during March and April 2017, engaging 145 young people aged 15-24 from across Scotland.
- Insights Lab – a one-day event was held in central Edinburgh in May 2017, which was attended by 45 young people and 11 policy officials from the Scottish Government.
The research was qualitative in nature, aimed at gaining in-depth insights into young people's experiences of the education and training system in Scotland. A total of 210 young people were engaged from a broad range of backgrounds. The depth of engagement was high, generating a combined total of 1,100 volunteer hours – an average of five hours per participant.
Review of existing evidence
A total of 15 documents were included within the desk review, most of which involved primary research with young people on their experiences of the Scottish education, skills and learning system. The majority of the studies were small scale and qualitative in nature, focussing on one particular geography or cohort of learners. A gap was identified in terms of larger-scale studies that considered the experiences of all learners within the Scottish education and learning system.
The key messages from the review of existing evidence were that:
- Young people's decisions about career pathways are not taken in isolation from wider social and cultural considerations.
- There is a need for better integration of the various elements of the education and learning system, and for learners to receive appropriate advice and support at key points in their journeys, to enable them to successfully navigate this.
- Young people with additional support needs, or who are facing other barriers to progression, require intensive and tailored support in order to make successful transitions.
Key findings: Young people's experiences of education and training
- Young people report a strong focus on attainment and qualifications within schools, to the neglect of wider development and support needs.
- This focus on attainment and qualifications was reported to be resulting in high levels of stress and pressure on young people, particularly during exam periods.
- The study found that poor attendance and low attainment were often the result of personal and social issues, such as mental and physical health problems, family breakdown, bereavement and caring responsibilities.
- The consensus was that educational institutions were not always well equipped to deal with some of the external issues that young people might be facing and which can hold them back from progressing in their learner journey.
- There is a perceived lack of parity of esteem between academic and vocational career pathways, with fewer options available to those who want to pursue technical subjects in the senior phase of secondary school, and an assumption that those who do well academically should go to university.
- Young people report the benefits of working part-time (whilst studying) in terms of developing 'soft' skills, but this can sometimes have a negative impact on attainment and coursework, as well as wider health and well-being.
Key findings: Decisions and transitions
- The first key decision point in young people's learner journeys is when they make subject choices in secondary school. These were reported to be based mainly on things they enjoyed or were good at rather than on a career plan .
- For young people planning to go to college or university, the decision of what stage to leave school is usually based on when they expect to have achieved the qualifications required and secured a place.
- There was reported to be good support available within schools to complete college and university application forms, but less adequate support available to help young people decide for which subjects and courses to apply.
- For those going on to college, apprenticeships or employment, decisions about the next steps are often based on what is available locally at the time they are looking.
- Taking time out of formal education can provide an opportunity for young people to think about what they want to do, travel, explore different options and develop their confidence. However, this is often not a realistic or practical option for those who are not being financially supported by their parents or who are in poverty.
- A lot of young people report challenges securing full-time employment and negative early experiences of the world of work, including insecure employment, zero hours contracts and poor pay and conditions.
- Lack of work experience was cited as one of the main barriers to employment facing young people leaving school, college or university.
Key findings: Influences
- Parents are key influencers on young people's career choices and learner journeys, both directly and indirectly.
- For disengaged young people with unstable family backgrounds, grandparents can be a positive and stabilising influence.
- Friends were also found to be a key influence young people's learner journeys, particularly those who were pursuing apprenticeships or other types of training.
- Young people's learner journeys are often influenced by personal and social issues, such as their own and family member's health problems, economic drivers (a need to earn money) and the skills and confidence gained through sports and other hobbies.
- Careers advisers were found to have had most influence on young people who were disengaged or at risk of disengagement.
- Career guidance was reported to work best for those who know what they want to do and wanted to work in traditional occupations, but is less effective for those who are not sure or looking to pursue opportunities in new and emerging industries.
- Most research participants said they would have liked more contact with a careers adviser whilst at school, particularly to help with subject choices.
- Work experience can have a profound impact on career choices, but young people report limited opportunities to access good quality placements.
Key findings: Ideas for change
A one-day event was organised to ask young people what they thought need to change to better enable young people to make effective decisions about life, learning and work. They were asked to consider what would have made their own learner journey better and voted on their top priorities for change.
The top five ideas for change were:
- Review and redesign of Personal, Social and Health Education ( PSHE) – so that it provides young people with the skills required to succeed in life. These include how to develop a CV and prepare for an interview, how to manage finances and how to develop and maintain healthy relationships. A secondary suggestion was that any review of PSHE be done in collaboration with young people themselves to ensure that it meets their needs.
- Better links to additional support – there was a reported lack of support within educational institutions to deal with some of the personal, social and health issues that young people might be facing. It was acknowledged that these institutions might not always be best placed to provide this support, but that teaching and support staff should be able to identify when young people are experiencing problems and signpost them to the appropriate support. Getting the right support at the right time was identified as key to enabling young people who are facing these types of issues to continue to progress in their learner journey.
- Coursework not exams – it was suggested that educational institutions, particularly schools, consider shifting their emphasis from exams to coursework, with the perception being that coursework is much more aligned to the realities of working life. Young people do not always see the value in exams, described by some as "memory tests", success at which does not necessarily equate with an ability to succeed in the real world. Less of a focus on exams would also reduce the intense pressure and stress faced by many young people during exam time.
- Focus on 'life skills' – young people report that they often feel unprepared for life after school and that this can hold them back in their learner journey. For example, many who go to university have to cope with living independently (often in a new town or city) for the first time. If they are ill-prepared to do that, their learner journey will falter, regardless of how well they are doing academically. They suggest a need for a greater focus on developing the life skills required for them make successful transitions, particularly within the senior phase of school.
- Overcoming bias of choices – young people are aware of biases surrounding different post-school routes. University is positioned as the 'gold standard' for those who achieve well academically, with alternative options and routes rarely considered or discussed with this cohort. Vocational pathways, including apprenticeships and other types of training, were perceived as being a lesser option. Young people said that they would like to be given impartial information on all available pathways in order to make informed choices.
Email: Lorraine Forrester, firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit
The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House