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EACEA National Policies Platform


6. Education and Training

6.1 General context

Last update: 25 January 2021
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  1. Main trends in young people's participation in education and training
  2. Organisation of the education and training system
  3. Main concepts


Main trends in young people's participation in education and training


The National Performance Framework (NPF) sets out the Scottish Government’s vision for its purpose and the outcomes it wants to achieve. All public services in Scotland are aligned to this single framework.Under the NPF, the Scottish Government has a national performance indicator to ‘increase the proportion of young people in learning, training or work’. This is measured by the proportion of school leavers who are in a positive destination approximately nine months after leaving school. 

The term ‘positive destination’ includes higher education, further education, activity agreements (see the section ‘Formal education: main policy measures on ELET’ in the article ‘Preventing early leaving from education and training (ELET)’, employment, training or voluntary work.

The Scottish Government publishes both initial and follow-up school leaver destination statistics annually. The statistics on school leaver destinations for 2018/19 show:

  •  95.0 per cent of 2018/19 school leavers were in a positive initial destination (94.6 per cent for 2017/18) - the highest since 2009/10.
  • 40.3 per cent of school leavers were in Higher Education (the highest proportion of all categories).

 The percentage of school leavers who were unemployed has decreased slightly from 5.0 per cent for 2017/18 to 4.5 per cent for 2018/19 leavers. The percentage of school leavers in employment has increased slightly from 22.7 per cent for 2017/18 leavers to 22.9 per cent in 2018/19.

The Scottish Government’s Opportunities for All policy offers a guaranteed place in learning or training to every 16-19 year old who is not in employment, education or training. The impact of this policy, and of the support provided by partner agencies, on the 16-19 cohort overall has so far not been fully assessed.

Skills Development Scotland ‘Participation Measure’ is the National Performance Framework indicator since 2017.  Data published in 2020 shows an increase of 0.5 percentage points in  participation rates amongst young Scots aged 16 to 19. The participation rate is 92.1%. T The proportion of 16 to 19-year-olds participating in education, training or employment between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020 has increased by 0.5 percentage points (pp) on the previous year. The participation rate for 18-year-olds has increased by 1.3pp to 89.1%, the rate for 17 and 19-year-olds has increased slightly and the rate for 16-year-olds has remained the same at 99%. 



Scotland's International Policy Statement, published in 2015 links international experience in education to the Government’s central purpose of creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth. Some ways this is achieved is through prioritising foreign language capability and international student exchange opportunities. 

Around half of the outward mobilities which take place in the UK do so within the Erasmus+ programme, the EU’s programme for education and training, youth and sport. Figures from the Publications Office of the European Union state that 16,868 UK students participated in the Erasmus+ programme in 2018 (report published January 2020). There is a steady upward trend of participation in the Erasmus+ programme - the UK sent students on 15,566 placements (10,316 study, 5250 work) in 2013/14. Under the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU, the UK will continue to participate fully in the current (2014-2020) Erasmus+ as part of the Brexit transition period. According to the European Commission website, the possible participation of the UK in future programmes after 2020 will depend on the outcome of the overall negotiations on the future relationship between the two parties.



Scottish Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) no longer charge tuition fees and, as a consequence, the Scottish Government retains a cap on student places. In August 2020, UCAS data published shows the number of acceptances from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland to UK universities increased by 30 to 4,360, a record high. 18 year old acceptances from the most deprived areas in Scotland also increased by 30 to 1,300. 

 A 2016 report from the Sutton Trust finds:

The gap in university participation between young people from the most and least advantaged areas is higher in Scotland than in the other home nations. However, Scottish 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas are still more than four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the least advantaged areas. Additionally, there has been improved access for disadvantaged students in Scotland as well as in the rest of the UK. However, detailed analysis of Scottish Funding Council (SFC) data reveals in Scotland this has been met almost entirely by the expansion of sub-degree programmes - e.g. Diploma of Higher Education (DipHE) and foundation courses at higher education level in Scottish colleges. Since 2006, 90 per cent of all the growth in entry into Scottish higher education by disadvantaged students has been through sub-degree courses in colleges. The funded places at Scotland’s older universities  are a notable exception, but there have been few other extra university places taken by disadvantaged students.

Organisation of the education and training system

Education is compulsory between the ages of 5 and 16. Compulsory secondary education comprises four years, from Secondary 1 (S1) to Secondary 4 (S4), for ages 12 to 15/16. In terms of ISCED (International Standard Classification of Education) levels, Secondary 1 to Secondary 3 is ISCED 2 and Secondary 4 to Secondary 6 is ISCED 3.As regards curricular provision, a Broad General Education (BGE) is provided up to, and including, Secondary 3 (aged 15).

The Senior Phase, which is characterised by increasing specialisation, flexible pathways, student choice and work towards qualifications, runs from Secondary 4 to Secondary 6. While the first year of the Senior Phase (S4) is compulsory, the following two years are optional.The Senior Phase may be spent entirely in school, or once students reach eligible age, they may go onto further or higher education, training or voluntary work, get a job or take part in community learning and development (CLD) programmes (see below). Students may stay on for a year and then at 17, leave to take up employment, or further or higher education, in keeping with the flexible choices available at this stage.

All secondary schools offer a general education. Some more vocationally oriented courses began being offered as well from S3 onwards. Upper secondary education most commonly takes place in secondary schools, with colleges being the other main providers of full-time programmes for students aged 16-18. They are the main providers of vocational courses, as well as offering general education.  Further education also covers the provision of courses for people whose first language is not English.

Higher education is available both at colleges (or further education colleges) and in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). For a list of HEIs, see the Scottish Government website.

Training provision is underpinned by the Future Skills Action Plan 2018. Government funded national training programmes are managed and delivered by Skills Development Scotland. Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs), taken in colleges or in courses offered by employers or other training providers, are the main type of training provision. This type of provision is generally for young adults. For example, Modern Apprenticeships offer individuals paid employment combined with the opportunity to train at craft, technician and trainee management level. While this is an all-age programme, support is targeted at young people aged 16-24.

For a more detailed description of the education and training system, see the article ‘Organisation of the Education System and of its Structure’ in the Eurydice national education description for Scotland. More detail is available in the article ‘Organisation of General and Vocational Upper Secondary Education’, in the ‘Higher Education’ chapter and in the chapter ‘Adult Education and Training’, which covers further education, training, and community learning and development.

Main concepts

The term early leaving from education or training (ELET) is not commonly used. Instead, the term ‘not in education, employment or training’ (NEET) is used. The definitions underlying the term used by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and reflecting those recommended by the International Labour Office (ILO) are:

Young people - those aged 16 to 24

Education and training – people are considered to be in education or training if any of the following apply:

  • they are enrolled on an education course and are still attending or waiting for term to (re)start
  • they are doing an apprenticeship
  • they are on a government supported employment or training programme
  • they are working or studying towards a qualification
  • they have had job-related training or education in the last four weeks.


GIRFEC (Getting it Right for Every Child) is the national approach that underpins all policy-making relating to children and young people in Scotland. Its principles are:

  • the centrality of the child or young person in decision-making
  • a focus on the overall well-being of the child or young person
  • early intervention
  • joined up working among relevant services.

GIRFEC includes a planning framework, the Child’s Plan, for children and young people who require extra support that is not generally available to address their needs and improve their well-being.

For those who require additional support for learning, there is a presumption in favour of such support being delivered through mainstream education.