Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP has challenged SNP ministers to do better by young people with disabilities as he highlighted figures showing only 0.4% of modern apprentices are disabled.
Speaking during a Scottish Government debate on Modern Apprenticeships today, Mr McArthur raised concern at the lack of improvement in participation when some 8 percent of 16-24 year olds in Scotland is disabled.
Speaking during the debate, Mr McArthur said:
In the context of Scottish Apprenticeship Week, like others, I welcome the fact that this debate is taking place.
I very much look forward to paying a visit soon to local construction firm, Orkney Builders to see first-hand the work they do in providing apprenticeship opportunities for young people in the islands I represent.
Indeed, Orkney Builders is just one of a number of local firms who, working alongside Orkney College, SDS and other partners, has shown a genuine commitment to apprenticeships and skills development over recent years. All of these businesses recognise that this investment is in their interests, their sector’s interests, as well as the interests of the young individuals taking advantage of the high quality, work-based training on offer.
So there are undoubtedly good and positive stories to tell. Stories that illustrate the life-changing difference that apprenticeships can and do make. Stories that demonstrate the energising effect that apprenticeships can have on those businesses that take them on.
And so the commitment to step up the number of apprenticeships from 25,000 to 30,000 is one that Scottish Liberal Democrats genuinely support.
However, as I have said before during similar debates in this parliament and elsewhere, it is not purely and simply a numbers game. Overall numbers are important, but the quality of what is provided, where those opportunities are being created – and as importantly where and to whom they remain elusive – are equally as important.
I am sure the Cabinet Secretary would not dispute that sentiment.
And so, Presiding Officer, while setting my remarks in the context of a general welcome both of what has been achieved in terms of Modern Apprenticeships and the commitment to go further, I feel it is more valuable to spend some time focusing on those aspects that are still not working as they should.
A clear example of where opportunities simply are not being created is for those young people with a disability. This was the focus of my amendment for this afternoon. While it was not selected, I am pleased that it is an issue that is picked up by Siobhan McMahon and Mary Scanlon in their amendments, which I am happy to support.
Both the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition and Inclusion Scotland have spelt out in stark terms the extent to which young disabled people are being let down when it comes to creating education and training opportunities.
To be frank, this is simply not good enough.
In recent parliamentary answers to me on this very subject, Ms Cunningham explained that “as all apprentices in Scotland must be employed and recruitment is, rightly, a matter for employers, we do not have figures that tell us how many disabled people have applied for a Modern Apprenticeship opportunity”.
Yet Skills Development Scotland’s own figures show that the overall number of modern apprentices who are disabled is less than 0.4%. Over the last five years, there has been no improvement, despite a 25% increase in modern apprenticeship places.
By no reckoning can this be considered acceptable, particularly when one considers that around 8% of 16-24 year olds is disabled.
At the same time, in England around 8.7% of modern apprenticeships are taken up by those with a disability. Even allowing for differences in the schemes north and south of the border, this discrepancy in performance is hard to fathom, much less justify.
SCSC conclude that “Scotland fares worst of any of the Home Nations, indicating that major and concerted action is required”.
Meantime, the consequences should come as a surprise to no-one. As SCSC go on to say, “young disabled people have a similar level of career aspiration at the age of 16 to their wider peer group. By the time they are 26, they are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed”.
The government, of course, will argue that concerted action is taking place, and that £3m has been allocated following the Wood report, which identified progress in this area as essential.
It is not clear, however, what proportion of the funding that has been made available will be allocated to the sort of interventions likely to increase the numbers of disabled young people successfully applying to take up modern apprenticeships, but perhaps the Minister can address this in her summing up.
I suspect that Ministers may also be reluctant to set targets for what, as Ms Cunningham said in her recent parliamentary answer to me, is “a matter for employers”.
However, Sir Ian Wood was very clear. His report called for “a realistic but stretching improvement target to increase the number of young disabled people” to be introduced and reported on annually.
Indeed, the government appears to have accepted the principle of targets by agreeing to increase the number of modern apprenticeship starts from minority ethnic communities to equal population share by 2021.
It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether the government is willing to take a similar approach with regards to those with a disability – and indeed care leavers – and if not, why not.
Sir Ian also recognised that there was nothing to be gained by willing the ends but not the means, and therefore recommended that “funding levels to colleges and MA training providers should be reviewed and adjusted to reflect the cost of providing additional support to young disabled people, and age restrictions should be replaced for those whose transition may take longer”.
These seem to be sensible and practical steps, reflecting the sort of action that needs to be taken to see the sort of improvement in this area that I believe we all would wish to see.
Presiding Officer, I was also intrigued to read Inclusion Scotland’s comments about the access by those with a disability to the government’s Employability Fund. As the aim of this fund is “to support activity that will help people develop the skills they need to secure a job or progress into more advanced training” one would be forgiven for thinking that the proportion of starts by people with a disability would be relatively high. In fact the figure is only 2.5%,
Again, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister about what “major and concerted action” is being taken to deliver the scale of change that is obviously needed.
Presiding Officer, there are other areas that demand attention. An obvious example is the low level of female apprenticeships in STEM-related areas, highlighted in Mary Scanlon’s amendment. This is an issue I have raised on many occasions and firmly believe is deserving of yet more ‘concerted action’.
But on this occasion, I think it is entirely right that I have focussed my brief remarks on the need to increase opportunities for those with a disability.
The government has a decent story to tell on modern apprenticeships, but as the Equality and Human Rights Commission rightly observes “We are missing a trick by failing to maximise the potential of all Scotland’s people”.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in relation to those with a disability. That is why Scottish Liberal Democrats will be supporting the motion and both amendments later this afternoon.