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Summer Series Blog - Andy Maciver

Andy Maciver photoWelcome to the Summer Series of blogs, where thinkers and experts give their views on colleges in Scotland and on what the future may hold. The views expressed are the views of the author. Andy Maciver is a political commentator and columnist, and the founder / director of Message Matters, with over 20 years of experience in political campaigning and strategy. Enjoy Blog 7.

Last week, Scotland’s senior school pupils received their exam results. Results week often produces a wave of statistical analysis and commentary, for perfectly understandable reasons. It is a highly consequential week for pupils and their parents, but also for the country as a whole, because the results these children achieve are highly impactful on Scotland's future prospects as a society and an economy.

Much of the coverage centred, as it always does, on pass rates and percentages, but one of the more thought provoking articles was by Sandy Begbie, the Chief Executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise and Chair of the Developing the Young Workforce campaign. DWF spearheads the #NoWrongPath campaign which encourages youngsters to understand that a disappointing set of exam results does not consign them to a life of destitution.

One can understand why they’d think otherwise. As a country, under all governments from all political parties, we have deliberately created this illusion in three ways. Firstly, we have made it progressively easier, over years and decades, to achieve high marks and good grades in S4 and S5 examinations. The outcome has been that the ever-reducing group of kids who are left without those grades inevitably feel like failures. Everyone else passed – but why didn’t I pass, and so on.

Secondly, and more recently, there has been a determined effort to close the attainment gap between the highest and lowest achieving pupils. This has, of course, been done for all the right reasons, but the inevitable outcome of the policy, should it continue, is to ‘bunch’ pupils into a larger group achieving similar results and therefore choosing similar paths.

Finally, very few political leaders have questioned the policy of pushing more and more children to one destination - university - over all others. Once again, this has, in effect, isolated and pigeon holed those who do not, or cannot, choose that path.

But what to do? I have a one word answer - colleges.

It would be unfair to label colleges as Scotland’s untapped resource, but it is entirely fair to call them an underdeveloped one. We often laud those who go to university, and indeed we have every reason to be deeply proud of our university sector and what it produces (albeit its funding structure is problematic). Similarly, we adopt something of a romantic pat-on-the-back mentality towards children who leave school at 16 and enter the world of work, and again that is an entirely credible and worthy path.

But for the college sector, we adopt a sort of collective tilt of the head. They’re not for university so they’re off to college to take a bit of time to decide what to do before they start working. This is completely the wrong approach.

The college sector should and can be the backbone of Scotland’s economy and our society. Scotland’s colleges are able to react nimbly to provide the skills and training for the economy of today and tomorrow, and in particular can be at the forefront of developing the workforce for an economy based heavily on renewable energy and sustainability.

At the same time, colleges can be a social, community hub in a way that universities cannot. They provide an opportunity for communities - charities, small businesses and so on - to come together for the greater good.

Scotland has many questions, and colleges can answer a lot of them. With a little more empowerment and encouragement by government, and a little more self-confidence by colleges, they just might do so.

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