Please State Your Destination

There’s a sign on Lothian Buses that says: Please state your destination to the driver. Destinations are in my mind at the moment but rather than exotic places like Pencaitland or Seton Sands, I’m thinking about colleges, universities and jobs – destinations for school-leavers.

Destination blind
Destinations, destinations…

Headlines in recent days have been about how young Scots from disadvantaged areas are four times less likely to go to university than those from wealthy backgrounds.

These headlines coincide with a paper to this week’s meeting of East Lothian Council education committee.

The paper, on school leaver destinations, states:

“There had been an incremental upward trend in East Lothian for the preceding 5 years.”

In short, the percentage of school leavers going to college, uni or getting a job has risen from 86.8% in 2009/10 to 91.9% in 2014/15.

As for those not so lucky, the paper states:

“We have a significant level of detail regarding those young people in a negative destination and that resource is targeted at engaging with these individuals.”

There certainly seems to be plenty of activity in East Lothian to get young people engaged with the world of work and further learning. There’s a programme of “Pre Activity Agreement interventions”, giving school leavers something positive to aim for in their final months of school.

I’m also intrigued by the imminent launch of the Construction Academy in Musselburgh. This is a project involving the Council, Edinburgh College and local and regional employers. It will give local kids an extra option for qualifications in new technologies and skills as well as traditional crafts and core employment skills. This connects with the expectation that East Lothian, Edinburgh and the South East region will continue to see further significant growth in new housing.


I’d also like to think the proposed Edinburgh region city deal (worth £1bn) will create infrastructure opportunities for our young people.

The Construction Academy will be housed in a former council building in Musselburgh. Anyone know which one? For the coming academic year it will apparently offer 160 places.

The Academy’s choice of location is no coincidence. Across East Lothian there’s a marked difference in school leaver destinations.

These figures from Skills Development Scotland are pretty revealing.

School leaver chart

Over half of school leavers from North Berwick go to university. Fewer than a third from Musselburgh Grammar do. At Ross High, which I briefly attended in my Belter youth, fewer than one in five school leavers go on to Uni. By contrast Musselburgh Grammar is the East Lothian high school with the greatest percentage of school leavers going on to college – one third. The lowest? North Berwick. The fate of school leavers in East Lothian is very much a tale of two cities.

So, what to do about the low rate of university education for those from less well off backgrounds? This shows free tuition doesn’t work, puff right-wingers. Does it heck, I say. It shows the need for greater support to encourage young people who don’t have wealthy families to excel at secondary school and see university as a realistic goal. If we want our young people to have curious minds to help change our economy and society for the better we must give them the option of a deep and enriching course of education beyond the basics of their teenage years.

If I think back to my experience (over 20 years ago!) I received little support in school to explore the options of university or college. I recall in fifth year at school in Inverness expressing an interest in journalism; the guidance teacher’s only suggestion was to maybe look at Bell College in Lanarkshire. I didn’t. After doing my own research I applied for journalism and communications degrees and HNDs at Napier University, Telford College (now part of Edinburgh College) and Queen Margaret College. Although I got accepted at Telford, I pursued a traineeship at Moray Firth Radio, which led to a job at the BBC in Glasgow, which in turn led to jobs in journalism, corporate communications and politics. My further and higher education has remained on pause for two decades…

Rare snap of me circa 1994

I’m from a working class family (dad was a soldier, mum was busy raising four kids) and going to university was an idea that came late to me, and even then felt like something other, posher kids were destined to do. I’m determined that for my daughter it is an option that is given plenty of thought in advance and comes with the best support and guidance I can muster. Maybe in the end she’ll prefer a job or college but it’s important to me that she has a choice.

To quote Nelson Mandela: Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.


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