Adviser on the Edge

Spatial perspectives on career guidance and development

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Scottish Skills, Careers, and Education: digesting the policy landscape…

Having spent some time at the Career Development  Institute conference a couple of weeks ago, and hearing quite a bit about the careers landscape in England, I have decided that now might be the time to digest some of the policy landscape around Scottish careers provision.

The revolution in Scottish careers really started back in 2007 with the publication of the Scottish Skills Strategy (Skills for Scotland: A lifelong skills strategy). This introduced a specifically Scottish take on skills, learning and careers, starting by identifying how compared to England Scotland has higher levels of qualification (with more people qualified at degree level than with a basic school leaving qualification), but lower levels of productivity. In Scotland, therefore the skills picture is complicated: higher levels of skills haven’t necessarily led to higher productivity, and so, the Skills Strategy lays out a new approach, focused on ‘Skills utilisation’ rather than simply skills acquisition.

Simply adding more skills to the workforce will not secure the full benefit for our economy unless employers and individuals maximise the benefits that they can derive from these skills. Furthermore, how skills interacts with the other drivers of productivity, such as capital investment and innovation, is crucial. Equally, investment in capital and innovation will be most productive when it is supported by a well trained workforce. We need to move beyond a focus on meeting the current demand for skills and tackle the issues which underlie and drive demand. (Scottish Executive, 2007: 13)

The result is a strategy that brings together:

  • Individual development
  • Economic pull
  • Cohesive structures

The resulting document is ambitious. A key point is how individual needs and employer / economic needs are given equal weighting. There is no tension expressed in the report about conflicting needs of employers and individuals, instead, what is good for the individual in terms of the workplace knits neatly with what is good for employers.The rationale here is about utilising skills in the workplace: it is proposed that with better skills utilisation of the workforce, productivity should increase; and better skills utilisation for individuals will enable better career outcomes and greater satisfaction. The vision that is painted in the policy is one where there is no distinction between ‘learners’ and ‘earners’ – so that the learning journey of individuals is streamlined, with more employer engagement in the curriculum, and more learning opportunities facilitated in the workplace.

The challenge for the education, skills and careers systems from this policy are substantial, and as the policy points out, requires the development of much more cohesive structures, so that employers and education / careers providers ‘speak’ to each other much more clearly.

Practical Implications

In the context of the financial crisis, in 2010 the policy was updated with the publication of Skills for Scotland: accelerating the recovery and increasing sustainable economic growth. This policy document lays out a more practical vision, summarising what has already happened in achievement of the original policy and outlining key areas for development.

There strategy has four themes

  • empowering people: to ensure they have the opportunity to access the right advice, support and opportunities to acquire the skills and attributes to both contribute to and benefit from future economic success;
  • supporting employers by better understanding and assessing the skills they need for future success, and ensuring that the supply of skills, training and qualifications can be responsive to this;
  • simplifying the skills system to ensure that it is more coherent and easy to understand for individuals and employers; and
  • strengthening partnerships and collective responsibility between public, private and third sectors to help improve skills and the contribution they make towards achieving Scotland’s social and economic aspirations

Central to the first point ’empowering people’ is the development of careers services. Indeed not only are careers services central to the first objective of the strategy but are pretty central to the whole strategy:

Placing individual career development at the heart of balancing skills supply and demand is a step forward in realigning the skills, learning and work system in Scotland. High quality information, advice and guidance (IAG) is vital for connecting all individuals with the workplace: and enabling them to progress in their career through on-going decisions in learning and work. The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring career services are available for all but that intensive services are targeted towards those who need it most. (Scottish Executive, 2010: 28)

This is a critical point, and one of the defining features of the Scottish careers and skills landscape: guidance services are central. However, these guidance services are radically reimagined in terms of their enhanced remit as facilitators between employers and individuals. Now, careers services have always understood the need for employer engagement and labour market information in order to provide strong services for clients. However, in the current Scottish landscape the role of the lead careers agency, Skills Development Scotland, goes further, not only are they the lead agency for delivery of guidance, but they are also the key agency for bringing together labour market information, employer and skills intelligence. They do this in partnership with other agencies, for example, the Scottish Framework for Careers (2011) identifies the role of AGCAS, Jobcentre plus, colleges and other organisations for the delivery of guidance, and the revised skills strategy mentions the  key role of the Sector Skills Councils in terms of labour market information. However, it is notable that SDS sits centrally in both the guidance and the skills landscape, and indeed from that perspective, simply their organisation name ‘Skills Development Scotland’ reflects this intermediary position.

In practice therefore, SDS sits centrally to a great deal of the skills landscape in Scotland, but works collaboratively with other organisations. The way the system works may be summed up in the ‘Scottish Skills Planning model’.

The Scottish Skills Planning Model. Reproduced from the SDS Operating Plan 2013-14, p.3

The Scottish Skills Planning Model. Reproduced from the SDS Operating Plan 2013-14, p.3

As can be seen in the diagram, data and analysis of skills needs are central, and influence both Careers IAG and the funding of education and training. In Scotland the key vehicles for this process are the Skills Investment Plans – which are documents drawn up by SDS in collaboration with other agencies to identify the skills needs and future priorities by both sector and region. Education and careers provision is then expected to be designed in relation to these plans.

It is notable that there is both a regional and a sectoral focus to these plans.

  • The regional focus ties in to the identification of different geographical needs of both employers and individuals. Alongside the regional SIPs the policy document also outlines the role of Community Planning Partnerships and the Single Outcome Agreements (which are developed between the CPPs and the Scottish Government) in order to set out regional outcomes and priorities in terms of education, skills and employment.
  • The sectoral focus is linked to the Government’s economic strategy which identifies key sectors with high growth potential and the capacity to boost sustainable growth. These are: financial and business services, energy, tourism, life sciences, food and drink, the creative industries, universities.

Although the  impact of the SIPs on guidance and education planning has not really been seen up to this point (because they are so new, you can see the existing SIPs on the SDS website), one thing that we have already seen in Scotland is an increase in the language of skills in guidance and in education. In particular, the Curriculum for Excellence has been a radical restructure of the curriculum within Scotland, and aims to “ensure that all children and young people in Scotland develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they will need if they are to flourish in life, learning and work, now and in the future.” This focus on knowledge,  skills and attributes, and on the holistic development of the young person has notably also been found in the new Career Management Skills Framework for Scotland (SDS, 2012) which identifies four sets of career management skills: Self, Strengths, Horizons, Networks. This framework has specifically been developed with the aim “to build on the firm foundations of skills for young people established within Curriculum for Excellence.” (SDS, 2012:1) Although it remains to be seen what impact the SIPs have, it is clear that already careers and education provision is becoming much more closely aligned.


The impact of the Scottish skills strategy is still to be felt, I think. However, with the recent release of a number of Skills Investment Plans, and the development of the Scottish Career Management Skills framework there is likely to be a great deal of development within the sector in the coming years. One thing that is certain is that the Scottish vision is radical in the way that it: reimagines the role of labour market intelligence and data at the centre of both the guidance and education systems; brings the careers and  education  systems much closer together; and gives employer needs a stronger voice in both systems while not neglecting the importance of the individual and their choice.

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Orkney and Shetland Student Survey is live! Can you help….?

Well, this is exciting. The first stage of my PhD project – a survey of final year undergraduates from Orkney and Shetland has just gone live!

help wanted

Image courtesy of mrpuen at

So, if you lived in Orkney or Shetland before going on to study for a degree, and you are due to graduate in 2015 please do take part! The survey is available online at:

Alternatively you can download the Final Research Information Sheet and Survey.

Please do help if you can, and help me to spread the word about the project too…! The more people take part the better the results of the research will be. Through my research I hope I will be able to find out more about what it is like for Orkney and Shetland students who go on to higher education, and help to inform careers and education services for future students from the islands.

In the coming weeks I will be promoting and circulating the survey as much as I can – so if  you have any ideas about what I can do to get the word out do let me know… Thank you!

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“cultural location… is a much better model for explaining social mobility than is the mechanistic undialectical notion of ‘intelligence’.”

This statement was made by Paul Willis in his classic 1977 book ‘Learning to Labour: how working class kids get working class jobs’ which I have been reading this summer. In the book Willis follows a group of young ‘lads’ as they make the transition from school to work, and comes to some fascinating and challenging conclusions.


Perhaps the most challenging part of the book is that Willis attempts to demonstrate how the lads’ reactions to school and careers guidance processes while appearing ‘radical’ in some respects actually helps maintain the status quo by preparing them well for working class jobs. So, for example Willis shows how counter-school culture bears some similarities with factory floor culture.

Although Willis’ book is dated in the experiences he describes – with vast changes in the economy since the 1970s – there were still a number of points that made me reflect. First of all, was his challenge that any economy relies on large numbers of low and semi-skilled jobs which are essentially the same. For people entering these kinds of jobs, the standard careers-adviser questions about ‘job choice’ don’t make a great deal of sense. Similarly he talks about the ‘educational fallacy’ that upward mobility simply requires individual effort and achievement, stating that this can only ever be possible for a small number of people not the working class as a whole, as the economy requires a large number of lower level jobs. For Willis the ‘lads’ in his study ‘expose’ these fallacies for what they are, but are unable to mobilise any radical response to their insights because of various limitations – which are basically other strongly held beliefs that lead them to accept their lower occupational positioning on the basis of other kinds of superiority (such as sexual superiority coming from the machismo of doing hard physical labour).

Now, for my study into rural young people, this is interesting in terms of the way that different young people may respond to the prevailing ideology of their school and careers guidance provision. However, there is also a larger question raised about how the ‘lads’ view careers guidance as (generally) not appropriate to their context. And this got me thinking about how the rural context may also lend itself (sometimes) to a perception that careers guidance is not very relevant. In a rural community like Orkney for instance, if someone wants to stay on the island, then sometimes the notion of ‘choosing’ a career may be inappropriate – because choices are limited, with many training routes unavailable on the island, and numbers of people employed in different sectors sometimes so small that unless someone retires or moves job there may never be an opportunity to work in a particular role. So, I wonder how the realities of rural life impact on perceptions of careers advice and then impact on uptake and experience of careers guidance services? I also wonder if careers guidance is different in its very nature in rural areas – for example I know that many of my conversations centre around thinking about broad kinds of work that interest a client and how to generate opportunities, build networks and create ‘luck’, rather than finding the ‘ideal career’.