Blending applied and academic learning: Scotland’s Foundation Apprenticeships

Mechanic vocational teacher in front of whiteboard in mechanic overalls surrounded by students listening

By Paul Herdman
President and CEO of Rodel and chair of strategic planning for the U.S. state of Delaware’s Workforce Development Board

Have you thought about what it’s like for young people trying to navigate to their first “real job” in this rapidly changing world? As the head of a nonprofit that sits at the intersection of education and the economy, this is something I think about a lot. That’s why I’ve been on loan to the OECD for the last few months and travelling around the world to learn about how several countries approach this challenge. My goal is to better understand the policies and strategies provided to support young people transitioning from education to employment. I want to examine whether the steps countries are taking are paying off and open a dialogue across borders about to how to learn from each other.

I have already written about some of my initial reflections from Australia and New Zealand here. This blog focuses on Scotland, where I learned about an approach called Foundation Apprenticeships (FA).

Prior to 2015, school students in Scotland generally had to choose between one of two options after completing compulsory schooling (typically at age 18): a general, academic path via higher education  or a vocational path via a specific job. The latter is called a Modern Apprenticeship (MA), a Vocational Education and Training path where students get paid, and start working on a qualification that prepares them to enter the labour market. In some sectors, they can build on this MA with a Graduate Apprenticeship to get additional training. However, there is a tension. The general education path often lacks real world experience, while the vocational path can be so narrow in its training that graduates are vulnerable if the job they’ve trained for changes or goes away. While policymakers are planning to expand the training in their MAs to mitigate this, Scotland has developed a third way called Foundation Apprenticeships (FA) for those still in secondary school. This hybrid model allows students to pursue the courses needed to apply for vocational routes and to university while also having a meaningful work-based learning experience.

The Foundation and Modern Apprenticeships differ in terms of time, compensation and qualifications. The work-placement in the FA is one day per week and part of their school experience while the MA is full-time and part of paid employment. In terms of qualifications, students who successfully complete their FA receive some core units for their Scottish Vocational Qualification and a qualification at the same level as a Higher (one of the five qualifications needed to be eligible for university). In contrast, MA students advance toward their vocational qualification, but their training is more job-specific, so should they decide to pursue higher education later, they would need to complete the relevant pre-requisite coursework and Highers.

In short, FAs integrate classroom learning with real-life work experience so that when students leave school (again, usually at 18), they have more postsecondary options.

To see how FAs work in practice, I travelled to Aberdeen and Glasgow. I met Andrew Ritchie, the lead officer of a program called Developing the Young Workforce (DYW) at Aberdeenshire Council. He shared that FAs were formed over a decade ago after national research showed that Austria, Germany, and Switzerland enjoyed lower youth unemployment and higher participation in apprenticeship-type models.

School students in Scotland, aged 15-18, can choose from one of 15 FA options ranging from working with children to software. The idea is to allow students to explore areas of interest and to learn transferable skills by mixing theory with practice. For example, one day they could learn teaching theory and later in the week, join a related work placement actually teaching.

I talked to dozens of students, but to illustrate some key points, I’ll focus on two. Rebecca and Abby, both about 20, had completed their FAs two years prior working in early childhood. They chose to work with children because they thought it would be helpful to their future university studies in healthcare and law, respectively. Rebecca, the aspiring healthcare professional, shared how she was able to calm down a special needs student that was “melting down” one day by drawing upon her theory class earlier in the week. This type of real-life experience was invaluable. She shared:

“When it came time to do interviews…While a lot of my colleagues, when asked hypothetical questions [didn’t have answers]…I could pull from [my experiences and] provide comprehensive answers they didn’t have.”

The FA approach to ongoing assessment was also different. Rather than sitting for a high stakes, “Higher” exam, FAs offer students an equivalent qualification that is built on feedback over time. Abby, the law student who’s interested in juvenile justice, said:

“I always got good grades, but [taking Highers] was…a sacrifice to my mental health. [The FA] was the equivalent of two Highers…and it didn’t have an exam. We were assessed along the way, so I actually enjoyed the assessment process…something I thought I’d never say.”

The goal with the work placements was not only to help young people figure out what they want to do, and don’t want to do, but for students like Rebecca and Abby, to learn transferable skills – like teamwork and critical thinking – what Skills Development Scotland call “meta-skills”.

It’s still a relatively new initiative, but early results are promising. FAs have grown from 300 students in 2015 to a projected 5,000 next year (about 3.5% of eligible students nationally) and well over 90% of the students that complete their FA go on to education, training and employment.

I’ll provide more context on this, and comparable models from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. in an OECD working paper later this year and will post a podcast on Scotland in September.

[Paul Herdman was on loan to the OECD from April to July and he is President and CEO of Rodel and chair of strategic planning for the state’s Workforce Development Board. Contact him on Linkedin or visit]