Jim McColl: One in five school leavers not ready for work

By Simon Johnson, Scottish Political Editor

Last Updated: 5:36PM BST 22/05/2012

An entrepreneur described by Alex Salmond as Scotland’s leading businessman has backed a motoring group’s assessment that thousands of school leavers are unemployable.

Jim McColl, the chairman and chief executive of Clyde Blowers, said his experience was “similar” to that of Arnold Clark, which complained that more than 80 per cent applicants for its apprenticeship places were unfit for any job.

The millionaire industrialist yesterday estimated that around one in five of all youngsters north of the Border are failed by the education system and are not prepared for work. This equates to around 60,000 pupils.

He said they “switch off” from mainstream schooling at the age of 14, but complained that his efforts to introduce more vocational courses have been met with obfuscation by the education establishment.

The intervention by Mr McColl, whom Mr Salmond has repeatedly praised as “Scotland’s leading business person”, came after the Daily Telegraph disclosed Arnold Clark’s damning assessment of the quality of young applicants.

Its training arm said many school leavers were “shocked” at the hours they were expected to work and described some college courses as so bad they amount to “state-sponsored babysitting”.

But Angela Constance, the SNP Youth Employment Minister, warned against victimising young people and said she would prefer to speak “positively” about their contribution.

Despite the bulk of the complaints being targeted at the school system, Mike Russell, the Education Minister, said nothing. The row broke out ahead of a meeting today between Holyrood’s finance committee and leading businessmen about “improving employability”.

Scotland is in the grip of a youth unemployment crisis, with almost a quarter of youngsters aged between 16 and 24 out of work.

Mr McColl is the son of a butcher and school dinner lady and left school at 16 to work as an apprentice with Weir Group. Last year he sold ClydeUnion Pumps for £750 million but Clyde Blowers still consists of 85 engineering companies in 27 countries.

Speaking ahead of today’s talks, he said: “I have to admit that my experience is similar to that which was voiced by Arnold Clark.

“I think there’s a basic challenge that we have with the young people today where we do get people, the type that would like an apprenticeship, are not coming out of school prepared for that.

“The education system we have, I think, is suited to maybe 80 per cent of the kids at school but there’s this 20 per cent that really kind of switch off. What we call comprehensive education is far from comprehensive.”

He told BBC Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye programme his company has conducted research in Glasgow showing these youngsters disengage from school at 14, meaning they gain little from their final two years of education.

The industrialist has examined setting up a school for around 30 children aged between 14 and 16 so they get vocational training in addition to the curriculum.

He said he was sticking with the plans but he was finding it “heavy going” to convince Scotland’s education establishment, who were trying to find “a thousand reasons” not to change.

Colin Borland, of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, said schools should teach pupils “pretty basic” skills like how to behave at meetings and talk to customers.

“There’s this gulf between the education establishment and the world of work,” he said.

Jim McPhie, of McPhies Craft Bakers in Glasgow, added: “There’s a serious breakdown here and really business needs help with all that. We’re not social workers, we’re not psychologists.”

But Miss Constance, who is a former social worker, said: “It’s really important that we just don’t generalise about young people. Particularly in this tough economic climate, we need to be positive about our young people.

“We shouldn’t just focus on the school system.” She said SNP ministers were working to improve “connectivity” between schools, further and higher education, training providers and employers.

Meanwhile, the head of one of Scotland’s leading private schools yesterday attacked new exams being introduced by the SNP to dovetail with the Curriculum for Excellence.

Anne Everest, from St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, said the National 4 qualifications are not a suitable replacement for Standard Grades because they do not differentiate between candidates of differing abilities.

Paul Champion

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Twitter: @blogapprentice
Skype: paulchampion31

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