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5th July 2023

Volunteering in a Shifting Skills Landscape

Widespread reform in Scotland’s education and skills landscape seems inevitable. The past few years have seen a raft of publications which all recommend seismic changes to Scotland’s education system, qualifications regime and post-school skills environment.

In 2022, Professor Ken Muir published his ‘future vision’ of Scottish Education and Skills Development Scotland launched their review of Scotland’s career services. Over the past few months we have also seen the findings of Scotland’s National Discussion on Education, as well as James Wither’s Independent Review of the Skills Delivery Landscape and Professor Louise Hayward’s Independent review of Qualifications and Assessment 

The landscape is definitely shifting, so what are the opportunities for volunteering?

There is little explicit mention of volunteering in any of these publications, however there are numerous positive indications that volunteering can, and should, play an important role in the proposed reforms. This quote from the Wither’s review, which broadly reflects a shared sentiment across the review publications, gives cause for optimism:  

"Education doesn’t happen in colleges and universities alone, it also happens in workplaces, in communities and in a multitude of other settings across the country."

This is the crux of why volunteering is so important to the education and skills landscape. People learn through volunteering, and are also supported to learn by volunteers, in a range of settings.   

There is considerable evidence to support this. In the 2023 NCVO Time Well Spent research, 72% of volunteers agreed that volunteering ‘gives me new skills and experience’. However, there are few opportunities afforded to individuals to reflect on the learning gained through volunteering, or indeed to receive formal recognition for this.  

The Withers and Hayward reports both speak about the need for ‘parity of esteem’ regarding educational pathways, whereby the value of different types of learning are equally valued. Rather than being perceived equally, academic courses are still held in higher regard than more vocational learning experiences in providing positive destinations. The National Discussion on Education talks about breaking down the ‘academic/vocational divide’ to formally recognise the achievements of all learners.  

Many of the recommendations for reforming the education and skills landscape could support greater recognition of the skills gained through volunteering. The recommendation in the Hayward Review that each school learner should have a ‘Personal Pathway’ to reflect the totality of their educational experience, as well as providing opportunities to self-reflect, seems a promising development.  

The role of volunteering is particularly important when people are experiencing key life transitions such as leaving school, re-entering the labour market after having children or changing career path later in life. This is reflected in the Volunteering Action Plan which has actions focused on tackling transitions and identifying volunteering opportunities by life-stage.  

The recognition that learning happens in a range of settings also reinforces the key role of volunteers as part of the education and skills workforce. Volunteers support a variety of education experiences for young people, typified by the network of uniformed groups across the country and the provision of youth work, but they also support adult learning including English for Speakers of Other languages (ESOL) courses and digital upskilling. This contribution should be acknowledged in workforce planning for the Education and Skills sector in line with Fair Work principles and the Volunteer Charter 

There is also recognition across the various review documents that employers have a key role in supporting lifelong learning and development, with the Withers Review in particular stating that:  

"Businesses that are active partners in workforce development, open up opportunities for work experience and apprenticeships and which recognise the benefits of upskilling their employees."

To this we would add opportunities for Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV). Participation in volunteering has measurable benefits for employability and as such is a valuable personal development activity for paid workers. Our 2018 research exploring the impact of volunteering on health and wellbeing found that:  

“The skills and experiences derived from volunteering can complement and support their career in terms of taking on new roles and responsibilities, securing promotion, etc. Furthermore, these benefits are likely to be stronger the more disadvantaged the individual.”

Similarly, in our analysis of 2019 Time Well Spent research, we found that one of the groups most likely to report that volunteering improves their employment prospects are those engaged in ESV. The Volunteering Action Plan, again, advocates for a national approach to ESV and we believe that the Education and Skills sector has a key role in developing this.  

Finally, there is much discussion in the review documents about preparing for the future. This refers to the need to adapt to changing workforce demands, as detailed in the National Strategy for Economic Transformation. Indeed, it states that:  

"The drive for Net Zero, the changing world of work, tightened public finances, global economic instability and the resultant rise in commodity prices and cost of living, only heighten the importance of equipping Scotland's people and businesses with the skills they need."

As stated in the title of the Hayward Review, it’s our future. If we want Scotland’s people to build their futures with ‘confidence, meaning and kindness’ – a call to action shared in the National Discussion on Education – then volunteering must be a priority.  

If you want to help ensure that volunteering has a key role in the reform of Scotland’s education and skills landscape, join the Policy Champions Network today, or contact me on sarah.latto@volunteerscotland.org.uk