Destination College – first choice for many, second chance for some, but not second best!

Yesterday (27 February), the Scottish Government published the latest destinations of school leavers in Scotland.

Today, journalists, politicians and others are trying to make sense of these figures – and, in some cases, not doing a very good job!

A BBC article reported that the “figures showed that the percentage signing up for university last year was 40.7%” and that “26.8% opted for a college course”.

That’s not the case.

The facts are that 40.7% of school leavers moved onto HE (higher education) courses and 26.8% moved onto FE (further education) courses. At least a quarter of those choosing to study HE qualifications do so at college, so a more realistic figure for school leavers going straight to university is around 30%. And, over 37% move onto college to study either FE or HE qualifications.

HE courses include HNCs (Higher National Certificates) and HNDs (Higher National Diplomas). Much of the increase in school leavers opting for HE study is down to more of them choosing HNC/Ds at college, sometimes with a view to progressing onto a degree at a later stage.

FACT – Each year, more school leavers go to college than university. College is the top destination for school leavers, whether they opt for FE or HE courses!

FACT – 41% of full-time Scottish entrants to higher education in 2015-16 were to college courses.

FACT – Colleges play a crucial role in providing access to HE for many people who otherwise would never consider it. In 2015-16, 14.8% of full-time first degree students lived in the most deprived 20% areas in Scotland. In the same year, 27.7% of full-time HE students at college were from these areas.

For most young people who start college straight from school, we are their first choice.

In the Ayrshire region, compared with the rest of Scotland, an even greater proportion of school leavers go straight to college than university to study further or higher education qualifications.

For other students, college is a second chance.

People who maybe left school and spent a few years in insecure, low-paid jobs or unemployed before deciding to do something more positive with their lives. People with significant life or work experience who have decided to pursue a new or different career. People who didn’t have the chance to pursue education after school.

First choice or second chance, colleges are not second best. We strive to ensure that all of our students have a first class experience.

That’s what I’ve seen in the four years I’ve been at Ayrshire College. Young, and not so young, lives transformed by the power of learning that prepares them for life, work or further education (including at university).

And, that’s why I get so exorcised when I see the contribution of colleges to building young people’s future being downplayed, albeit unintentionally, by misinterpretation of the facts.

My plea is simple … please report these statistics properly and help people understand how colleges help school leavers, and those who left school a while ago, to achieve their ambitions, whatever they may be.


In March 2018, the Scottish Government published an evidence report ‘Learner Journey: Analysis of Scottish education and training provision for 15 to 24 year olds‘ . The report is based largely on published data up to and including 2015-16 (my previous article Destination College – first choice for many, second chance for some, but not second best!’ analysed school leaver destinations for 2016-17).

The report contains lots of interesting data but it is flawed in how it presents school leaver destinations. Before I comment further on that, some general observations about the report.

Section 3 deals with College Provision in Scotland. While the focus in this chapter is on Further Education (FE) courses, there is a short section on HN (Higher National) qualifications on page 36. It is not made clear in this chapter focusing on FE that HNs are in fact Higher Education (HE) courses.

Section 5 on Transition between School and University makes no reference to HN Certificates and Diplomas as HE qualifications. Neither does it make clear that over a third of the 37.3% (in 2015-16) who moved onto HE from school do so at college!

According to UCAS, around 25% school leavers in Scotland move onto university. Subtracting that figure from the 37.3% moving onto HE and adding the 22.4% of school leavers who moved onto FE courses means that the reality is that 25% young people go to university from school and 34.7% go to college.

This means that colleges are the TOP destination for school leavers!

Myths that half of young people go to university persist and commentators regularly report that 50% young people go to university. I have tried hard – without success – to find statistical evidence for this claim. Based on the statistics in the report published in March, the only conclusion I can draw is that the 50% figure is a myth that has been around so long it’s become part of our folklore!

Countries like Austria, Germany and Switzerland celebrate and champion their vocational education systems. Indeed, in these countries most young people are proactively encouraged to follow vocational and technical routes at college.

These countries are proud of the majority of their young people who go to technical colleges or into apprenticeships on leaving school. They are also proud of the minority of their young people who move onto university.

Can we say the same in Scotland (and the UK) when commentators perpetually inflate the number of young people moving onto university from school and underplay the larger numbers who go to college?


Some in the education system say that a problem in attracting young people onto college courses – full time or delivered as part of the senior phase at school – is that most parents see university as the top destination to aspire to.

I don’t buy this.

First, more school leavers move onto college each year than university. For most of these young people, college is their aspiration, their first choice destination.

Each year in Scotland, three quarters of school leavers DON’T go to university yet the ‘university first’ myth persists.

For those school leavers who do aspire to go to university but don’t secure a place, college is a second chance to gain qualifications which will ultimately help them get onto a degree programme, often directly into second or third year.

Aspirations of young people and their parents vary – stay on at school, leave school to further their education at college or university, start a job, sometimes as an apprentice. All positive and valid aspirations. Very few people will disagree with this, but some don’t really believe it.

A recent research report, Can we put the ‘poverty of aspiration’ myth to bed now? by Morag Treanor from the University of Stirling, explodes the myth that poor parents have low or no aspirations for their kids’ education.

An interesting statement in the report is that the “literature emphasises that it is the structural elements of poverty, and the middle-class culture of education, that presents a barrier to children’s education and not a deficiency in parents’ or children’s aspirations.”

I work at Ayrshire College and have no doubt that parents of the vast majority of our younger students aspired for their daughters and sons to go to college as a first choice destination, not as a second best option.

Their aspirations are no less valid than those who aspire for their child to go to university.

All of us working in the education system need to believe this – and promote all pathways and destinations beyond school equally to young people.


Communities at the heart of everything we do

I’ve been passionate about the value of vocational education for over three decades – as a student, in industry, as a lecturer, as a senior manager in national educational organisations, and as a policy adviser in government. In 2013, I had the opportunity to fulfil this passion by taking up a vice principal post at the new Ayrshire College.

My job just prior to joining the college was advising the Minister for Youth Employment on vocational education and its critical role in tackling youth unemployment, for example through industry-relevant qualifications and apprenticeships. I wanted to play a part in meeting the stretching ambitions set out for colleges by the Scottish Government.

I learned that Ayrshire College was a centre of excellence in supporting the skills needs of a strong aerospace sector. I discovered that that the college was the main provider of engineering and construction apprenticeships in the region. And, I was impressed with how it was responding to employment growth in sectors like care, early years, and hospitality and tourism.

All of this reinforced how critical colleges are in enabling young people to develop the right skills to take advantage of jobs in these and other industry sectors. Very relevant in the light of the recent publication of the Scottish Government’s report on the 15-24 Learner Journey Review.

But, there was something else.

Although I was vaguely aware of the role that colleges played in communities, to see this in very sharp focus was refreshing and energising!

From the beginning, community engagement has been in the DNA of Ayrshire College, demonstrated by the time and energy that staff and students allocate to this. A culture of engaging with and supporting communities is embedded across all curriculum areas and embraced enthusiastically by our Student Association which, as well as engaging students in campaigns like Reclaim the Night, raises tens of thousands of pounds for local charities each year.

The college works collaboratively with the three community planning partnerships (CPPs) in the region. Their priorities – tackling inequalities, and building and supporting working, healthier and safer communities – are reflected in our priorities.

Colleges support working communities and inclusive growth

Inclusive growth is defined as “broad based growth that enables the widest range of people and places to both contribute to and benefit from economic success”.

Colleges are critical to making inclusive growth a reality.

Working closely with community planning partners and employers, we build the confidence and skills of people in communities to take advantage of employment opportunities in economic and jobs growth in sectors like early years, care, hospitality and construction.

For example, at Ayrshire College we deliver Hospitality and Bartender courses in partnership with local employers and JobCentre Plus. Part of Diageo’s Learning for Life initiative, the course is designed to fast track long-term unemployed people into jobs by helping them acquire new skills, gain nationally recognised qualifications and learn from industry experts. Delivered over a six-week period by the college, the course includes a two-week work placement with a hospitality business. Hundreds of young people have taken part in these courses – two thirds of them gain jobs immediately on completion, 75% within three months of completing the course.

Working with North Ayrshire Council, we run the Skills for Life programme to support unemployed people into work by helping them develop the confidence and skills necessary for the workplace. Six weeks of intensive training at the college, followed by paid placements in North Ayrshire Council, has enabled most participants to progress into positive destinations, mostly into jobs.

These are just two examples of our ongoing support for people across the region. There are many more. As long as there is a need in Ayrshire’s communities to help unemployed people develop the skills to get into and stay in work we will continue to run courses like these, customised to individual, local and employer needs.

Colleges support healthier communities

Some people face multiple barriers to having happy and productive lives. An important aspect of enabling people to secure and sustain employment is helping them improve their physical and mental health.

Like all colleges, we work hard to improve the health of our students, staff and the wider community. At Ayrshire College, we have three unique shared posts which are funded in partnership with NHS Ayrshire & Arran, Police Scotland and the three integrated Health and Social Care Partnerships in Ayrshire. Each offers a unique range of services and interventions to promote student safety and wellbeing.

Our contribution to a healthier Ayrshire is most vividly illustrated by the community focus of our sports curriculum. All full-time sport and fitness students volunteer in Ayrshire schools through the Active Schools partnerships in East, North and South Ayrshire councils. Well received by pupils and their teachers, this also provides our students with invaluable coaching experience in a real life setting, while increasing the fitness of young people.

Each year our sports students are instrumental in delivering Ayrshire Sportsability’s Festival of Sport, a focal point for disability sport in the region and a highlight for students who coach over 600 young people each year in eight different activities over the four days of the festival.

Our sports staff and students have been recognised at a national level for their campaigns to improve the fitness of local residents, young and old. For example, Get East Ayrshire Active has engaged thousands of shoppers in Kilmarnock town centre, helping them introduce changes to their lives that have significant health benefits to them as well as their wider community. The students also support physical activity for older adults in the community, for example by running fitness classes or coaching walking football.

As well as helping Ayrshire’s people to be physically healthier, we allocate considerable time, energy and resource to support those struggling with mental health problems. Throughout the year, staff and students organise awareness raising events to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health, to highlight the support that is available for those who need it, and to raise funds for organisations like the Scottish Association of Mental Health.


Colleges support safer communities

An important aspect of our work in supporting safer communities is helping students to understand and challenge racist, sectarian and homophobic behaviour. Sports students organised an anti-racism event in partnership with Supporters Direct Scotland. One Ayrshire – Many Cultures complements Colour of our Scarves, an initiative that focuses on sport, and football specifically, in a bid to tackle discrimination of all kinds and promote equality.For example, our sports students organise anti-racism events in partnership with Supporters Direct Scotland such as One Ayrshire – Many Cultures which complements Colour of our Scarves, an SDS initiative that tackles discrimination of all kinds in sport and promotes equality.

We work with regional and local Violence against Women partnerships to to deliver on the Equally Safe action plan and raise awareness of gender-based violence. 16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence is firmly established in the college calendar each year and our Student Association organises a Reclaim the Night walk which brings students, staff and others together to campaign for the safety of women and girls. Sports staff and students organise an annual Blow the Whistle on Domestic Violence 5-a-side football tournament to raise awareness of domestic abuse and raise money for East Ayrshire Women’s Aid to help families affected by abuse.

Working with communities helps students develop essential skills for life and work

Research shows that there are important links between skills and employability, health and crime. We see that every day in Ayrshire. The college’s culture of engagement and support has a positive impact on the lives of people in the communities we work with.

Crucially, this culture supports the broader skills development of our students who, through their involvement with people of different ages, abilities and cultures become more empathetic, tolerant and employable individuals. Volunteering activities enrich their learning experience, promote active citizenship and help students to develop the soft skills required by employers.

So, as well as making a difference to their communities, it makes a difference to the students who volunteer.

Students like Natasha Kerr, who in 2016 was named Scotland’s Youth Worker of the Year at the YouthLink National Awards Ceremony. Natasha dedicates hundreds of hours each year to volunteering and coaching young people in a range of sports, and was offered a place at St Andrew’s University as a result of her achievement in the national Youth Worker awards.

I learned very quickly when I joined Ayrshire College that it is possible to be a world class vocational education provider at the same time as a being a vibrant community college providing vital resources for local communities.

These do not compete. In fact, they complement each other.

Regardless of whether a student ends up working as an engineer in a world-leading aerospace company, an early years practitioner, a joiner, a hairdresser, a network support technician or a care support worker what they learn through their volunteering activities and community-based projects makes them extremely valuable assets to Scotland’s workforce and communities.

We’re developing a young workforce that meets the skills needs of Ayrshire’s economy.

Just as important, we are creating a young workforce that cares for its communities and contributes to their success. 

No Wrong Path!

My early career choices 

My first career was in computing but I never planned to work in technology.

At school, I had a wide range of interests and achieved highers in Maths, Chemistry, English, German, Geography, History and Modern Studies. While I went through phases of liking particular subjects, my favourite subject throughout secondary school was English. A career in computing was nowhere on my radar – there weren’t even any computers in schools at the time!

When I was in my final year at school, I bowed to pressure from teachers to apply for university. At the time I was interested in African politics, prompted by the brutal murder of Steve Biko by the apartheid regime in South Africa, so I thought ‘if I’m going to be forced to go to university I’ll study something I’m really interested in and go as far away from home as possible!”

Big mistake!

I went to the University of Sussex to study African and Asian studies but, as I had neither the confidence nor the desire to survive at university and missed home, my stay at Brighton was a short one!

I returned to Scotland and spent the next few years in and out of jobs at a time of economic recession and high youth unemployment. In the mid-1980s, aged 25, I went back to full-time study to do a BSc Computer Information Systems at Glasgow College of Technology.

My husband and I had just had our first child, taken out our first mortgage – just as interest rates began to soar – and we needed to increase our family income. So, my motivations for choosing a computing degree were vocational and financial. It was a growing industry sector and I knew I was likely to get a good job with decent money when I graduated.

And I did!

If you’re interested in signs that I was destined for a job in tech, read the section at the end of this blog post.

Whirlwind tour of my career 

I started my career in manufacturing at Motorola Semiconductors where I did some programming, supported the computer network and trained staff on packages like Harvard Graphics (Microsoft Office hadn’t yet appeared on the scene!) I wasn’t the best programmer, but my boss described me as a ‘great de-bugger’ (at least I think that’s what he said) because I could spot a misplaced punctuation mark a mile away! My forensic approach to grammar and punctuation served me well here and in my future career.

Next, I worked at AVEX Electronics where I was responsible for introducing and installing a computer network across three sites. This is where I really discovered the power of digital networks, and the potential they opened up for individuals within and outwith an organisation to share information and collaborate on projects.

Designing and delivering training courses to support employees through a major systems change sparked an interest in learning and I applied for a lecturing post at the University of Paisley. Here, as well as teaching about computer networks, I became interested in learning with networked technology and I was an early pioneer of developing online courses.

I took this interest forward when I became director of learning at the Scottish Council for Educational Technology, and assistant chief executive at Learning and Teaching Scotland, where I led departments responsible for educational software development and technology training courses for schools, colleges and universities.

In 2000, I organised one of the first large-scale educational conferences to be broadcast live online across the world (Fusion2000 which ultimately evolved into the Scottish Learning Festival), and managed a project team responsible for implementing the National Grid for Learning (the precursor to Glow) to enable schools across Scotland to access educational resources on the Internet.

I became interested in the policy underpinning education and lifelong learning in Scotland, and developed this further when I joined the Scottish Government in 2003. In my ten years in government most of the roles I had related to skills and employment not technology, although I was responsible for e-learning policy for a couple of years.

I took up a role as vice principal at Ayrshire College in 2013 where I had a wide range of responsibilities including our management information systems and data analytics. So, although I was involved at a different level than when I set out over 30 years ago, I’d kind of come full circle in my career!

No wrong path

Two years ago this week I became principal of West Lothian College. The skills and experience I have acquired in my long and varied career are being put to good use in this role, and I am very excited about the possibilities for the college in the years ahead.

When I left school I really had no idea what career I wanted. I made a few choices early on that led me down a path I didn’t want to follow. So I changed direction!

Throughout my career I’ve chosen a different career path when it felt right for me – so far I’ve had seven major career changes and worked for eleven different employers!

Sometimes it wasn’t obvious – even to me – what the connection between one career and another was. People close to me often thought I was making risky decisions and advised me against them. But I always did what felt right for me and, although there were some strange turns along the way, none of the paths I chose led to a dead end. 

When I look back over my career pathway, although my route has been long and winding, there was no wrong path. Every twist and turn, even the occasional dead-end, led to new insights into what drove me and those insights led me to my next destination. 

If I went back to the future and keyed my current destination into a career sat-nav when I left school, I’m sure it wouldn’t have suggested the route I’ve travelled. My path was fuelled by my passion for what I was interested in at the time and I wouldn’t change that for the world!

The early signs that I was a techie

Although I didn’t set out to have a career in technology, when I look back to my childhood and early adulthood, the signs were there – but neither I nor my parents and teachers spotted them. Seems like I’ve always had an affinity with technology and gadgets – I just never imagined how that could link to a career! Here is my retrospective detective work on how Jackie ended up in tech.

Late 1960s

When I around seven years old I asked for a ‘modern’ electronic till for Christmas. This was cutting edge technology at the time! I had just started to see them in large shops and was fascinated. You can see from the buttons on the till that this was before decimalisation (basing currency on multiples of 10 and 100). On 14 February 1971 when I was eight years old, there were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. The next day the pound was made up of 100 new pence!


I got a tape recorder for my tenth birthday and used it to record family sing-songs, the chart countdown every Sunday on the radio (we couldn’t afford to buy singles), and spending hours asking family and friends “What do you think of polo mints?” (a popular TV advert at the time although I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers this!) 


When I was eleven, I won a prize for General Excellence in Primary 7. The prize was a book token – worth a mighty 15p! – and the book I bought was ‘The Telephone’, a Ladybird book about telecommunications. Two men were responsible for my interest in telephones – the inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and my dad who was a telephone fitter. In the 1960s and 1970s, my family moved around Scotland as my dad helped setup telephone exchanges from Lanark to Inverness. Communication is a thread that weaves through my career.

Early 1970s

As a young teenager in my third year at secondary school, I asked for a Chemistry Set and microscope for Christmas. I had chosen Chemistry as one of my O-Grades (older readers will remember these, in later years they were superseded by Standard Grades, Intermediates and now Nationals). I became interested in Physics and did a crash O-Grade in fifth year at school. I started the Higher in sixth year – the only girl in a class full of boys. That didn’t bother me, but my teacher was openly hostile to having a girl in his class. I decided that I wasn’t going to subject myself to his taunts and I left the course. Decades later, I’m still annoyed at myself for letting him win!


In the early 1980s, I campaigned against rising rates of youth unemployment.  I had a talent for designing leaflets but it was becoming a chore to type these on a manual typewriter when it was very difficult to judge the space required for text. I bought a Canon Typestar 5 electronic typewriter which revolutionised how I drafted documents. I could now type a line of text, review it on the 15-digit display (yes, you read that correctly) and make any changes before hitting return to print it onto the sheet of paper! I used this brilliant wee machine to type up essays throughout my degree study. It wasn’t until I worked in industry that I had access to the new personal computers (PCs) which had just arrived on the scene.


A couple of years before I started my computing degree I bought my first computer – a Commodore Plus/4! Fairly radical at the time, I was able to programme in Basic. It even had some rudimentary application software built in, for example a word processor and spreadsheet.


IT Now? Feels pretty much like IT past!

Taking advantage of a quiet Sunday morning, I settled down to read the latest edition of IT Now, the magazine for British Computer Society (BCS) members, to catch up on what’s going on in the digital world. 

As I read through the articles, something didn’t quite compute. I didn’t put my finger on it until around page 48 when I realised that the author of the piece I was about to read had something in common with all but one of the authors of previous articles – he was male! 

I hadn’t been aware of the gender of the authors before I read each piece. In fact, and apologies to the writers, I went straight into the substance of each story without reading the introductory preamble. But the further I got into the magazine, the more uneasy I felt. This unease was more intuitive than rational but, having been around digital technologies for nearly 30 years, I knew something was not quite right.

I was curious to find out if this was out of the ordinary, so I logged into the BCS members’ portal to have a look at previous editions of IT Now. Here’s how many substantive articles were written by women – 

  • Spring 2016 edition: 1 out of 24 – 4% 
  • Winter 2015 edition: 5 out of 24 – 21%
  • Autumn 2015 edition: 4 out of 24 – 17%
  • Summer 2015 edition: 2 out of 26 – 8%

Should I be surprised? 

Perhaps not, after all the magazine is pretty representative of the IT industry, ie overwhelmingly male! The imagery is very male (except when there are stories about women in IT) and the editorial team is all male. The latter, in itself, is not a problem if there is good awareness of unconscious bias and a genuine commitment to diversity.

Why so male? 

Maybe women BCS members are not submitting articles to the editorial team. If that is the case, it’s not good enough to accept it. Good editors will strive for balance and diversity, and proactively seek stories from women in the industry. Not in a tokenistic way, but to improve the quality of the magazine for both female and male readers, and to ensure that female BCS members and women in the industry generally identify and engage with it.

This wouldn’t bother me so much if I wasn’t aware that excluding the female voice and perspective continues to affect young women in the industry – many feeling as lonely and isolated as I did over a quarter of a century ago. 

In an era of growing digital dominance, the industry is crying out for young people and women to fill critical roles to enable growth. Progress made through initiatives to persuade women that the IT sector is right for them risks being undone if what they encounter when they enter the industry continues to be testosterone heavy!

Come on, BCS – you really must do better! 

When the numbers don’t add up …

On the news recently, I heard that Italian coastguard was trying to find and save 1,000 migrants in difficulty on the Mediterranean Sea (over 2,000 were subsequently rescued). In the same week, 300 migrants travelling in dinghies died when they ran into stormy weather after leaving Libya. According to the UNHCR, over 3,500 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2014. 

More than 200,000 people were rescued during the same period, many pulled from the sea as a result of an Italian operation known as Mare Nostrum. This operation was launched in October 2013 in response to a tragedy near Lampedusa in which 366 people died. It ended when the governments of EU member states voted to stop it, because they believed that the prospect of being saved was encouraging an ever increasing number of people to make the perilous journey to the European mainland.

Migration and the exodus of people from the horrors of war, persecution, hunger are not new issues. I don’t claim to be particularly knowledgeable about all the issues surrounding this highly charged, political topic. However, I do know that many politicians and political parties have a disgraceful and disgusting attitude to these most vulnerable of people, reducing them to numbers and dehumanising them in the process. 

The UK Coalition Government’s commitment to reduce the number of immigrants in the UK from the hundreds to the tens of thousands was a cheap attempt to capitalise on the ignorance and fear of a large proportion of the population, who believe the number of immigrants in the country to be far greater than it actually is. And, the closer we get to the UK general election, the more likely it is that the numbers don’t add up!

Almost without exception, the press can’t get enough of stories about large numbers of immigrants ‘taking our jobs’ and ‘draining our resources’. Very rarely are distinctions made between asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. There is some honest coverage, notably in the Guardian, where the numbers start to reveal themselves as human beings. Human beings like Moaaz, Majd, Rasha, Kinan and Khalid – friends who fled war-torn Syria on a perilous trip to reach Europe. They filmed their journey which you can watch here

Giving the unheard ‘numbers’ a voice

Poet Holly McNish has written a few hard-hitting poems about immigration, including Ocean Floor which is specifically about the plight of desperate people who take to the sea in search of a better life. Have a listen here.

Joan Baez recorded a heartbreaking version of ‘Deportees’, about migrant Mexican workers dying in a plane crash while being deported from the US after their work contracts had expired. The media of the time (particularly the New York Times) dehumanised the tragedy with a dismissive reference to 28 deportees dying in the crash whilst naming the crew members who died. Listen here.

Helping asylum seekers

I’ll end on a positive note.

There are many people and organisations providing support and hope to asylum seekers who reach our country. United Glasgow Football Club was formed in 2011 to provide a point of access to regular, structured football for those who would usually find themselves excluded; financially or by discrimination. It was formed primarily to help refugees and asylum seekers, and anti-discrimination and financial inclusion are the club’s guiding principles. By keeping costs to a minimum, and not charging players for games or training, the club brings together individuals from communities who otherwise may not have met through a shared love of football. Find out more about United Glasgow FC and the ethos it promotes by watching the following films.

Recent publications reinforce the importance of work experience for school, college and university students

One of the consequences of the economic recession of the late 2000’s, which resulted in large rises in youth unemployment across the world, was a renewed focus on how well education systems were preparing young people for work. An important aspect of this was on how schools, colleges and universities could work better with employers, for example in relation to work experience.

Numerous reports since then have reinforced the value of work placements for students and unemployed young people, and this article summarises the conclusions of three recent publications on this topic.

Catch 16-24: Youth Employment Challenge

February 2015 saw the publication of the latest youth employment challenge report Catch 16-24 from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). Its 2014 Employer Perspectives Survey found that the young people employers recruit are generally well prepared for work – the main thing they lack is experience rather than literacy or numeracy.

The UKCES report reminds us that many young people remain caught in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to getting on in today’s labour market – they can’t get work without experience and can’t gain experience without work! This is compounded by the fact that the proportion of 16 and 17 year olds combining full-time education with a part-time job has halved in fifteen years – less than a quarter of teenagers now combine school with work!

Two thirds of employers say work experience is a significant or crucial factor in their recruitment, yet most aren’t engaged with schools and colleges to offer the placements necessary to enable young people to gain experience. Who you know and where you live impact significantly on the work experience opportunities available to young people, and there are significant regional variations as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1 Whether establishments have had a student on placements in previous 12 months, by region IMG_0974

The UKCES reports reinforces the need for the worlds of education and employment to be better connected to prepare young people for the world of work. It stresses that all schools, colleges and universities should have links with local businesses to help inform and inspire young people about the breadth of career opportunities available to them. Importantly, it recommends that contact with the world of work should be an ongoing part of every young person’s education. In Scotland, the Invest in Youth Groups, which will be funded by the Scottish Government, will play a critical role in linking employers and education.

Work placements in university degrees

National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) published a report in January 2015, Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science.

The report provides evidence that work placements improve the employment record of computer graduates in the UK. However, not all universities offer placements and, despite efforts to support work placements for undergraduates, demand from students in computer science is low, especially for sandwich placements.

There is an increasing demand for shorter placements from students and employers, and NCUB recommends that universities should focus on increasing demand and monitoring the impact of all placements. In Scotland, a range of placement programmes have been introduced to fulfil demand in areas like computing and engineering. For example, e-Placement Scotland is an industry-backed programme run by Edinburgh Napier University, e-skills UK and industry body ScotlandIS, funded by the Scottish Funding Council. Careerwise is a Scottish Government funded programme which aims to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers through the provision of paid work placements key sectors like engineering and technology.

Author’s aside – Sandwich satisfied my hunger for understanding

In 1987, I returned to full-time education to do a computing degree. Aged 25, with a new baby and an even newer mortgage, my motivation for this was very simple – to get a decently paid job in the growing IT industry!

I was offered places by two universities and two technical colleges, and quickly discarded the two universities because they didn’t offer a sandwich placement. I chose what was then called Glasgow College of Technology (now Glasgow Caledonian University) and spent my third year as a Trainee Systems Analyst at Motorola Ltd.

I have no doubt that I learned more about computing in my year in industry than in my first two years at university. The skills and experience I gained built my confidence, enhanced my knowledge and developed my expertise in the subject, all of which led to me winning the IBM prize for top student in my final year. And my salary of around £7500 for the year was a very welcome addition to our family income at a time when interest rates were hitting the roof and we were struggling to pay our mortgage!

Developing the Young Workforce

In December 2014, the Scottish Government published Developing the Young Workforce, which sets out how it will implement the recommendations from the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce, established in January 2013 to explore how to develop a modern, responsive and valued system for vocational training. The Commission’s final report Education Working for All! was published on 3 June 2014 and set out 39 recommendations.

Developing the Young Workforce sets out how the Scottish Government aims to implement the recommendations of the Commission. Work experience for young people in school and college is a key aspect of this, and the strategy includes plans for a new standard for work experience in schools, as well as a new focus on work experience and the quality of careers guidance as part of secondary school inspection programme. For colleges, it wants young people to benefit from better work-related learning experiences, supported by a new standard for work experience for colleges.

The strategy sets out plans for engaging with employers on a more systematic basis by engaging with existing industry-led groups and establishing new industry-led groups in parts of the country where they do not currently exist. The hope is that these Invest in Youth groups will play an important role in coordinating the involvement of employers in schools and colleges.


Work experience matters. Few disagree with this. But more commitment from all concerned is needed, so that all students and jobless young people have access to high quality work placements.

Links for further reading

  • Developing the Young Workforce, Scottish Government Youth Employment Strategy, December 2014
  • Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science, National Centre for Universities and Business, January 2015
  • Key issues in employer engagement in education: why it makes a difference and how to deliver at scale, UK Edge Foundation and Skills Development Scotland, January 2015
  • Catch 16-24, UK Commission for Employment and Skills Youth Employment Challenge Report, February 2015

  • STEM doesn’t need a ‘girly’ image to attract females but its image does need to change

    Every October, individuals, groups and organisations across the world celebrate women in science, technology and engineering by remembering Ada Lovelace, who is acknowledged as a pioneer of computer programming.

    As well as reminding or introducing us to women in history and the present who have or are making major contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the week is also about encouraging more girls and women to choose to study and work in STEM areas.

    From an economic perspective, this drive for female recruits is neither altruistic nor based on an equalities agenda. The UK needs an additional 87,000 graduate-level engineers each year between now and 2020, and there are predicted to be 11,000 IT job opportunities each year. Yet women represent only 7 per cent of the professional engineering workforce according to the Institute of Engineering and Technology and just 17 per cent of the IT workforce.

    Filling these job vacancies won’t be possible without persuading tens of thousands of people, including women to join these industries. But, there’s a problem. Despite significant efforts in recent years, there has been very little improvement in the numbers of women choosing STEM as a career. Indeed, the percentage of women in IT is reducing and is lower than it was twenty years ago!

    In a recent article, Guardian journalist Jess Zimmerman summed up the problem of getting women into these sectors and keeping them.

    We tend to talk about the “pipeline problem” of women in science and technology as if the only difficulty is funneling girls into the pipe, at which point they can just waterslide into the pool of gainful employment. But the problem isn’t (or isn’t only) the flow of girls into the pipeline. The problem is that the pipeline is leaky. The even bigger problem is that the pipeline is plugged. Anyone who slides all the way to the end will fetch up against a blockage of lazy, retrogressive attitudes about how women should behave.

    Very few disagree that this is a problem and in the past year there has been a large spike in the number of studies, reports, campaigns and government policy commitments seeking to reverse these trends.

    In the 1970s, American folk singer Peggy Seeger wrote a song called I’m Gonna Be An Engineer which makes fascinating listening about the low expectations of women just a few decades ago. What strikes me most about the tone of the song is the determination to fight against all the odds – parents, husband, teachers, employers – to pursue the ambition of becoming an engineer. You can listen to Peggy singing this song here. The lyrics are included at the end of this post.

    Although things have changed to some degree in the four decades since the song was written, it’s depressing to think that the concept of being an engineer is still such an alien and unattractive one for women. As a woman who started her career as an IT specialist in the mid 1980s, I’ve seen many cycles of campaigns to persuade women to choose computing and other STEM areas. Such are the odds stacked against them, most of these campaigns have been remarkably unsuccessful. In the IT sector I chose to enter, the numbers of women choosing computing science went into freefall in the mid-1980s, the decline continued through the late 1990s when it levelled off only to drop significantly again in the first decade of this century. This podcast discusses how the image of computing contributed to this decline.

    Getting the image right

    The remainder of this article offers some observations on the role that stereotypical images play in turning women away from choosing to study or work in STEM.


    A lot of fuss was made this year when Lego launched its Research Institute set which features three female scientists. On the plus side, at least it didn’t resort to ‘girlifying’ the characters the way that they did when the company introduced the Lego Friends series where the girl characters morphed into something more akin to junior Barbie! Going large on pastel colours, these sets reinforced gender stereotypes of girls as carers and home makers, rather than creators and engineers.


    What a departure from the company’s original approach when it was all about building wonderful constructions out of small plastic bricks in glorious primary colours! And what a shame because, as the advert below shows, at the outset Lego was a non-gendered toy marketed in the same way to girls and boys. Indeed, included in the “10 Characteristics for LEGO” set out in 1963 was that LEGO was ‘for girls and boys’.


    Challenge negative images

    In October 2014, engineering company Aerohydraulics caused a bit of a twitter storm when the cover of its 2013-14 product catalogue caught the attention of the Women’s Engineering Society and ScienceGrrls (the 2014-15 catalogue wasn’t much better!) who encouraged people to contact the company to express their discontent.


    After being contacted by a number of women, the company responded within 24 hours, apologised and agreed to adopt a new approach to marketing its products! The letter from the company below demonstrates some real learning. Let’s hope the company follows through.


    Should have known better – must do better!

    More alarming in my opinion are those who should know better, who indeed do know better, but unintentionally portray stereotypical imagery to promote the STEM sector. The following examples are visual imagery from organisations very conscious of the absence of women in the sector. Indeed, two of the three examples are/were intended to encourage more women into science, technology and engineering!

    The most recent example is the latest poster from the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). WES has done a very good job in its 95 year history to encourage women to become engineers, scientists and technologists. And, as you have just read, they were instrumental in gaining a commitment from Aerohydraulics to stop using negative images of women in its promotional material. However, its campaign to encourage girls and women into engineering based on a pink cupcake is deeply disappointing, patronising and borderline offensive.


    Much worse was the video produced by the European Commission a couple of years ago to support its Science: It’s a Girl Thing initiative. More akin to a trailer for a ‘Charlie’s Angels’ film, the Commission was forced to remove it due to the overwhelmingly negative feedback it received. Did the commissioners of this video really believe that lipstick and catwalk poses would persuade young women that science was a girl’s thing? Incredible!

    The final example is not an image designed to attract women into the IT sector; it was about attracting people to a major conference. However, the IT sector is desperately short of skilled people and attracting women is acknowledged in the recently published Skills Investment Plan for Scotland’s ICT and Digital Technologies Industry as a way to tackle this skills shortage.

    ScotlandIS is the trade body for the digital technologies industry in Scotland, with a remit that includes raising the profile of the industry. The image of this sector is particularly unappealing to women if the falling number of women entering it is anything to go by. Unfortunately, the posters used this year to attract people to Scotland’s largest annual IT conference, ScotSoft, reinforced this image by failing to show that women might have an interest in the sector!


    Let’s take gender out of science, technology and engineering

    Attempts to lure girls and young women into science, technology and engineering will ultimately fail if they are dressed up in lipstick, pastel colours and high heels. Well-meaning at best, they completely miss the point.

    Olivia Jones, Project Manager at the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) explained recently why we have to stop trying to ‘girlify’ engineering. Her research shows that young women don’t have an innate dislike for engineering. She claimed that when you emphasise the creative, people-based problem-solving, and environmental aspects of engineering they start to see the appeal.

    We have to stop treating engineering like a hated vegetable, to be snuck in under a thick coating of sickly sauce, and talk to girls about engineering honestly and in a way that they conveys how relevant and exciting it actually is. When girls are presented with real women who are engineers they can see that engineering doesn’t need to be dressed up to be interesting and that engineers are normal men and women who they can relate to.

    The image of STEM is a major, although not the only, barrier to attracting female talent. In presenting an image which would be attractive to females and males, let’s remove gender references and focus on the positive aspects of what it means to be an engineer, computing scientist, etc.

    A report from the Royal Academy for Engineering this year, Thinking like an engineer: Implications for the education system, offers fresh insights into the ways engineers think. It suggests ways in which the education system might be redesigned to develop engineers more effectively. It argues that engineers make things that work or make things work better, and that they do this in quite particular ways. The report identifies six engineering habits of mind which describe the ways engineers think and act: Systems thinking; Adapting; Problem-finding; Creative problem-solving; Visualising; and Improving.

    I can see some great visual imagery based on these habits of mind, can you?

    I’m Gonna Be An Engineer Lyrics

    When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy
    I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys
    Everybody said I only did it to annoy
    But I was gonna be an engineer

    Momma told me, Can’t you be a lady
    Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
    Wait until you’re older, dear, and maybe
    You’ll be glad that you’re a girl

    Dainty as a Dresden statue
    Gentle as a Jersey cow
    Smooth as silk, gives creamy milk
    Learn to coo, learn to moo
    That’s what you do to be a lady now

    When I went to school I learned to write and how to read
    Some history, geography and home economy
    And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need
    To while away the extra time until the time to breed
    And then they had the nerve to say, What would you like to be
    I says, I’m gonna be an engineer

    No, you only need to learn to be a lady
    The duty isn’t yours, for to try and run the world
    An engineer could never have a baby
    Remember, dear, that you’re a girl

    So I become a typist and I study on the sly
    Working out the day and night so I can qualify
    And every time the boss come in he pinched me on the thigh
    Says, I’ve never had an engineer

    You owe it to the job to be a lady
    It’s the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl
    The wages that you get are crummy, maybe
    But it’s all you get cos’ you’re a girl

    She’s smart (for a woman)
    I wonder how she got that way
    You get no choice, you get no voice
    Just stay mum, pretend you’re dumb
    That’s how you come to be a lady today

    Then Jimmy come along and we set up a conjugation
    We were busy every night with loving recreation
    I spent my day at work so he could get his education
    And now he’s an engineer

    He says, I know you’ll always be a lady
    It’s the duty of my darling to love me all her life
    How could an engineer look after or obey me
    Remember, dear, that you’re my wife

    As soon as Jimmy got a job I began again
    Then, happy at my turret-lathe a year or so, and then
    The morning that the twins were born, Jimmy says to them
    Kids, your mother was an engineer

    You owe it to the kids to be a lady
    Dainty as a dish rag, faithful as a chow
    Stay at home, you’ve got to mind the baby
    Remember you’re a mother now

    Every time I turn around there’s something else to do
    It’s cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two
    I listen in to Jimmy Young, it makes me want to spew
    I was gonna be an engineer

    Now I really wish that I could be a lady
    I could do the lovely things that a lady’s s’posed to do
    I wouldn’t nearly mind if only they would pay me
    And I could be a person too

    What price – for a woman
    You can buy her for a ring of gold
    To love and obey (without any pay)
    You get a cook and a nurse, for better or worse
    No you don’t need a purse when a lady is sold

    But now that times are harder, and my Jimmy’s got the sack
    I went down to Vickers, they were glad to have me back
    But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
    And I’m a first-class engineer

    The boss he says, We pay you as a lady
    You only got the job cos’ I can’t afford a man
    With you I keep the profits high as may be
    You’re just a cheaper pair of hands

    You’ve got one fault, you’re a woman
    You’re not worth the equal pay
    A bitch or a tart, you’re nothing but heart
    Shallow and vain, you got no brain
    You even go down the drain like a lady today

    I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
    I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
    But if I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
    And an underpaid engineer

    I’ve been a sucker ever since I was a baby
    As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
    But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
    I’ll fight them as an engineer

    Apprenticeships – Vital for Scotland’s Future

    On 31 March Ayrshire College Principal, Heather Dunk spoke at the national summit of the Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce (aka the Wood Commission). She described how the College is bringing employers and education together to make sure that the skills young people leave college with are those that industry needs.

    Not surprisingly, apprenticeships featured prominently at the summit. Even before the final report of the Wood Commission was published, the Scottish Government announced increasing annual targets for apprenticeship starts year on year to 30,000 by 2020.

    During her presentation Heather played a video showing how micro, small, medium and large companies in Ayrshire are working with the College to develop their employees through apprenticeships. Each of the businesses in this video believe in the importance of staff achieving vocational qualifications through a combination of college based learning and on-the-job experience. The young people in this video demonstrate why apprenticeships are so important to them.

    James – Apprentice at GSK, Irvine

    James wanted to study a science higher education qualification when he left school. After ruling out university, he decided to embark on a science course at college. When he saw an advert for a process chemistry apprenticeship at Glaxo SmithKline, he applied and is now combining study for an HNC Applied Science at the College with work-based learning at the company.

    Shaun – Apprentice at Dustacco Engineering in Newmilns

    Shaun knew at school that he wanted to work in a job related to engineering and went to college to study a Level 2 qualification. In his second year at college he chose to specialise in welding and secured a month-long work experience placement with Dustacco Engineering, who then offered him an apprenticeship.

    Lesley – Owner of Lesley McDonald Hair & Beauty, Troon

    Lesley achieved a clutch of Highers at school and was encouraged to go to university. However, she wanted to be a hairdresser and chose to follow her ambitions. In 2010, at just 22 years old, Lesley set up her own company and four years on she now employs six staff. A firm believer in balancing college learning with experience in the workplace, two of her employees are undertaking qualifications at Ayrshire College. Practising what she believes in, Lesley is studying an HNC to develop her own skills.

    Want to hear more from James, Lesley and Shaun?

    Find out more about these young people’s experiences via Ayrshire College’s YouTube channel For other examples of apprentices supported by the College read

    Scottish Apprenticeship Week 19-23 May 2014

    In 2014-15 Ayrshire College will support up to 900 Modern Apprentices continue or start their training with employers in sectors like engineering, hospitality, construction, care, hairdressing and motor vehicle maintenance. The College will highlight many case studies during Scottish Apprenticeship Week, so follow the College on twitter @AyrshireColl for lots of great stories, videos and events.

    Scottish Apprenticeship Week helps showcase the value that apprentices add to businesses. It shows young people, and those who influence their choices, that apprenticeships make good career choices. Find out more about the week and get involved

    International Girls in ICT Day 2014

    To attract more women into science, technology and engineering (and keep them there) we all need to wise up!

    International Girls in ICT Day takes place on the fourth Thursday in April every year and this year’s was on 24 April.

    Lots of activity takes place across the world in the days and weeks around this date to promote the importance of attracting more girls and women into ICT study and occupations. Thanks to the power of technology, it was possible to learn about much of this activity through social media and the web. One of the most inspirational stories I read this week was about 19-year-old Noor Siddiqui who is developing technology solutions to help medical professional make better decisions during emergencies

    I work at Ayrshire College, the fourth largest college in Scotland, and we did our part in promoting the campaign as we continue to encourage girls and women to study computing qualifications. We highlighted the choices and successes of our female computing students, as well as other examples of women in technology, science and engineering. Check out for a flavour of our activity.

    However, as a woman who graduated with a computing degree in 1991, I am disappointed that this sort of initiative is still necessary in a world driven by information and the technology which helps make sense of it. Sadly, the numbers of women opting to study and work in ICT continues to decline and, more worryingly, more of the women who do enter the ICT industry after achieving computing qualifications choose to leave it!

    I started my computing degree more than a quarter of a century ago, two years before the web was invented. Unbelievably, for an innovation that transformed how the world used computers in the ensuing decades, my degree class was never introduced to the web – even in a theoretical sense!

    There are long-established organisations which have played a consistent role in addressing the under supply of women in the industry. The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) campaign celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – three decades of concerted work to increase the gender balance in the UK’s STEM workforce, pushing for the presence of female employees from today’s 13% to 30% by 2020.

    Women in Engineering was set up in 1919 to inspire women in engineering and allied sciences. It promotes careers in engineering, supports companies with gender diversity and speaks as a collective voice of women engineers. There’s a great presentation on their website charting their history from the First World War to the present day at

    There are some new kids on the block – ScienceGrrl, GirlGeeks, STEMettes, STEMinist and many more – who seem to have more of an attitude! They appear to be more youthful, more assertive, more of the 21st century. Let’s hope they complement the consistent, committed campaigning of WISE and WES and make a difference.

    Try them out on twitter @girlgeeks @stemettes @wisecampaign @wes1919 @science_grrl @steminist