4. 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.
4.1 This chapter reports on young people's experiences of the education and training system in Scotland covering experiences of school, academic versus vocational pathways, developing life skills and experiences of employment.
Experiences of school
Young people report a strong focus on attainment and qualifications within schools, sometimes to the neglect of wider development and support needs.
4.2 A clear and consistent message from across all 14 workshops was that the latter stages of secondary school (from S4 onwards) are characterised by a strong focus on school performance, as measured by attainment and qualifications. This was sometimes felt to be at the expense of individual learning, development and support needs, including preparation for life after school.
4.3 The focus on attainment and qualifications was reported to be resulting in high levels of stress and pressure on young people, particularly during exam periods (which is when the workshops were carried out). Young people noted that this had an adverse effect on those who are less academically able, as grades are perceived to be the only measure of their 'worth' within a school context. It was also said to have an impact on those who are expected to do well as they feel the pressure of expectation, compounded by a belief that the grades they achieve will determine the course of the rest of their lives.
"When I was younger, I had time to enjoy life, make memories and live life like how it should be. I now feel the stress and pressure of expectation to do well in school. There is no time for enjoyment, no time to relax." Rohan, aged 16.
Alongside the focus on grades and qualifications, there was a reported lack of support within schools to tackle the root causes of poor attendance and low attainment.
4.4 The findings from the workshops suggest 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, bullying and caring responsibilities. The most commonly reported approach to addressing low attainment was for schools to encourage pupils to drop certain subjects or to leave school altogether, often midway through the academic year and sometimes against their will.
"When I became a young carer, I got told that my only option was to leave school. They never told me about any support for when I left." Tamara, aged 17.
"They wanted me to leave school… it's easier than helping." Michael, aged 23.
"I struggled a lot at school with having dyslexia and never really learned anything. The school said themselves that it would be better for me to leave." Tay, aged 18.
"I was told that I had achieved my potential in my subjects and that I had to leave." Ciaran, aged 18.
"I loved music and it was the only class I was interested in. My school made me drop it because of my mental health. I gave up after that. I didn't see the point. I spent 11 months sitting in the support base not doing anything before leaving." Jenna, aged 17.
4.5 There were notable exceptions to these examples, where young people reported having received ' fantastic support' and encouragement from guidance and / or learning and development staff, who were often reported to be acting as advocates for the young people they were working with. However, the general consensus was that schools are not well equipped to deal with some of the external issues that young people might be facing. In some cases, only minor adaptations would be required in order to address some of these issues, such as sitting exams in a quiet room or being able to have a mobile phone in class in case an issue arises at home.
Parity of esteem
There is a perceived lack of parity of esteem between academic and vocational pathways and an assumption that those who achieve well academically should go to university.
4.6 A consistent message from the workshops was that schools view university as the top destination for leavers, with college being the preferred second choice. This ties in with the focus on attainment and qualifications, with a perception that the 'ideal' pathway is to achieve good grades and then go to university. This was reported to be particularly true of 'high performing' schools – that is, schools at the top of league tables and from which an above average proportion of leavers go to university.
4.7 There is an assumption that leavers in the top cohort in terms of grades and attainment will go to university and this route was reported to be heavily promoted within schools. Alternative options, including vocational and technical routes, were rarely discussed with this group. Several workshop participants spoke of a "stigma" associated with apprenticeships, based on a perception that they are for those who are less able.
4.8 Caitlin, aged 23, Modern Apprentice
4.9 Caitlin did well in her exams at school and enrolled on a university course in Events and Marketing Management. After graduating with an Honours Degree, she struggled to get a graduate job in her field, which was having a negative impact on her mental health. After two years, Caitlin secured a Modern Apprenticeship ( MA) in Digital Marketing which she is thoroughly enjoying. With hindsight, she wishes she had gone straight into her MA after leaving school, but at the time she didn't think the programme was for "someone like her" ( i.e. someone academic). Caitlin wants to change the perception that apprenticeships are a lesser option than university or college.
4.10 Several workshop participants reported feeling pressure to go to university from schools even when they felt that it was not right for them. This sometimes resulted in them starting university and then dropping out, or having to go against the advice of the school to pursue alternative routes.
"I left school to do sports development at university. I didn't enjoy it and wanted to make money so I left. I eventually found a job as a trainee estimator, but I hated it and so I had to leave. I am now in the second year of my apprenticeship and am finally doing something that I enjoy." Ewan, aged 21.
"I decided I wanted to become a civil engineer. My school organised two work experience placements for me in fifth year, which confirmed my decision. I did Advanced Higher Graphics, but didn't want to go to university (as was being suggested by my school) and so went to college instead. After college, I still didn't feel ready for university and so went to Cambodia to volunteer for three months. I still wasn't ready for university and didn't know what type of civil engineering I wanted to do. I moved to Milan for a year to do au pair work and learn Italian. I came back and started an engineering apprenticeship. I'm really enjoying it and feel that it was the right decision for me." Gemma, aged 22.
4.11 Young people report more focus and attention being paid within schools to those who were planning to go to college or university. This includes support to research and select courses, complete application forms and attend open days. There is much less guidance and support available to those who want to pursue other routes, including employment and apprenticeships.
There are limited options available to those who want to pursue technical subjects in the senior phase of secondary school.
4.12 The senior phase of secondary school was reported by many workshop participants to be geared towards preparing people for university or college, with a strong focus on academic subjects and relatively few options available to those who were looking to pursue more technical and vocational routes. Some workshops participants commented that they would have been motivated to stay in school for longer if there had been a greater range of subject choices that they were interested.
"I worked hard on my Craft and Design Intermediate 2, but I couldn't take the Higher course due to a lack of teachers for the technical department. I was also unable to pursue Higher engineering or wood and metal for the same reason. My final two years of school were horrible due to personal reasons and being unable to do the subjects that interested me and that I was good at." Sophie, aged 19.
"I did woodwork for three years and wanted to continue with this, but was told that I couldn't as I had gone as far as I could with it. I was advised to take Higher Graphic Communication instead, but struggled with it as I hadn't done it before and the others in the class had been doing it for much longer." David, aged 19.
"There should be more options for different types of learners. Some people are more practical and creative / visual. School is all about writing. Sitting in classrooms and listening to teachers." Ashleigh, aged 20.
4.13 One option that has been made available recently in some areas is Foundation Apprenticeships ( FAs), which offer students work-based learning opportunities during the senior phase. One workshop participant started a two-year FA in fifth year. However, whilst they enjoyed it, they struggled with the other subjects that they were taking (Higher maths and physics) and so ended up leaving before the end of the first year.
Developing life skills
Many young people report feeling ill-prepared for life after school.
4.14 The focus on attainment has created a perception amongst some young people that schools are simply teaching them "how to pass exams" rather than how to think for themselves, use initiative, solve problems and work in teams. Thus, many report feeling ill-prepared for life after school, regardless of what they had achieved (or were expected to achieve) academically. Many called for more of a focus on coursework within school, as this was felt to be a better representation of working life.
4.15 Schools were described as offering a safe and protected environment for young people, with minimal exposure to 'real-life' issues and challenges. Thus, many young people describe the experience of leaving school as 'stepping into the unknown'. Many report feeling that they lacked basic life skills such as how to set up a bank account; how to read a pay slip; how to live on their own; and how to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Most of the young people who participated in the workshops said that they would have liked more advice and guidance on these types of issues at school to prepare them better for the next stage. This issue came up in each of the workshops, but was a particular point of discussion amongst those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who may have had limited support to develop these types of life skills at home.
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 coursework, as well as wider health and well-being.
4.16 Many of the young people that participated in the workshops had done (or were doing) part-time work whilst at school, college or university. Most reported positive benefits of this in terms of developing 'soft skills' such as timekeeping, communication, team work and following instructions. For those that had since moved into full-time employment, they felt that this experience had resulted in them being better prepared for working life.
4.17 For some, particularly those who were still at school, part-time work was a source of extra money to pay for luxuries. However, for others, it was an essential source of income – they would not be able to continue their studies without it. In these cases, working too many hours was sometimes reported to be having a negative impact on attainment and coursework, resulting in high levels of stress.
"University is my future, but work pays the rent. I can't do everything… something has to give." Michael, aged 23.
4.18 The National Minimum Wage for apprentices in Scotland is £3.40 per hour. However, the rates paid are highly variable depending on the employer and the industry. One of the workshop participants was doing a full-time Modern Apprenticeship, whilst also holding down two part-time jobs. This meant that she was working over 70 hours per week and her coursework was suffering. At one point, she was hospitalised with exhaustion.
"The money you get for doing an MA is not enough to live, to run a car. I'm hoping that it will benefit me in the long run but in the meantime, I need to do extra jobs to survive." Caitlin, aged 20.
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