Scottish Economy

Weekly Update: Reviews, strategies, and progress reports… the pre-recess rush of government documents continues

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for government reviews and strategy documents as the civil service seeks to get lots of stuff out before recess.

We’re going to discuss a couple of them in this update: the Withers Review into the skills system in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s Child Poverty Progress Report.

A massive shake-up in the skills system to come?

Last week, the much-anticipated Withers Report was published. Entitled “Fit for the Future: developing a post-school learning system to fuel economic transformation”, this report was authored by James Withers, who will be known to most of us as the former Chief Executive of Scotland Food & Drink. His brief from Scottish Ministers was to produce an Independent Review of the Skills Delivery Landscape in Scotland.

In James’s frank and straight-talking style, this report is a stark assessment of the issues with the current system and its failings. He has described the landscape as fragmented, with a lack of strategic direction, containing incoherent and fragmented pathways and particularly highlighted the lack of coordination between skills supply and education provision.

The report sets out 15 recommendations, 5 of which are described as “structural”. These recommendations, if implemented, would be a huge shake up of the skills systems in Scotland, and have significant consequences for the bodies who deliver skills policy. The five structural recommendations are:

  • To move responsibility for national skills planning from Skills Development Scotland (SDS) and Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to the Scottish Government.
  • To establish a new single funding body, which brings together responsibility for all post-school learning and training funding functions from SFC, SDS and, potentially, the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS).
  • To give the new qualifications body a clear remit for overseeing the development and accreditation of all publicly funded post-school qualifications and the underpinning skills frameworks and occupational standards.
  • To substantively reform SDS to focus on the development of a national careers service, with a mission to embed careers advice and education within communities, educational settings and workplaces across Scotland.
  • To give the enterprise agencies a clear remit for supporting businesses with workforce planning as an embedded and integrated part of business development and planning.

The Scottish Government are currently considering the recommendations, and there are also a number of related reviews that are going on just now (and are expected to report relatively soon), including the review of the qualifications system and the Purpose and Principles review of the HE & FE sectors, which may impact on how the SG responds.

But even if only some of these are taken forward, it looks like significant reform of the skills system may be on the way. Some of these problems have been longstanding, and were identified through previous reviews (such as the Enterprise and Skills Review in 2016) – so many will be putting pressure on the government to commit to more fundamental change this time.

Statutory targets on the Government’s number one priority will be missed

The Scottish Government’s annual statement on the progress on statutory child poverty targets was released on Tuesday alongside a Ministerial Statement.

This progress report captures the range of activity taken forward in 2022-23 by the Scottish Government, reflecting the initial implementation of the actions set out in ‘Best Start, Bright Futures’, the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan for the period 2022-26.

One of the main policies that the Government has pursued to contribute to these goals is the Scottish Child Payment, a direct payment to families with children who are in receipt of qualifying benefits.

The value of this has been increased to £25 per week from November 2022, up from £10 when first introduced, and eligibility has also been expanded to all eligible children under 16, having started just for children under 5. As at end March, 303,000 families were in receipt of this benefit.

So are the Government on track to meet these targets? In a word, no.

Even with the Scottish Child Payment showing up as expected, at this moment in time, new modelling from the Scottish Government tells us that the 2023-24 interim target will be missed. The main reasons are changes in the economy, of which we will all be familiar. Yet, despite this new information there appears to have been no response to try and do anything more to make sure the target can be met.

  2021-22 2023-24 2026-27 2030-31
Outturn data 23%*      
SG modelled estimates   19% 18%  
Target   18%   10%

This is pretty baffling. Tackling poverty is central to the vision set out by the new First Minister in his recent Policy Prospectus. Missing a statutory target should be a big deal, shouldn’t it?

Instead we have had the equivalent of a shrug and a suggestion that the constitutional settlement means we lack the necessary levers. Yet, the Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament, with all the limitations of the current devolved settlement well known and understood. There is no excuse.

If the Scottish Government are going to continue to claim that this is at the heart of their vision, they need to set out what they are going to do to meet this statutory target.

I hope everyone enjoys the sunshine again this weekend… we’ll be back next week with more analysis of no doubt more government documents!


* The Child Poverty (Scotland) Act specifies that single year figures must be used for the targets. However, based on guidance from DWP and SG, outturn data for Scotland (and other UK regions and countries) is usually aggregated over multiple years.


Mairi is the Director of the Fraser of Allander Institute. Previously, she was the Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Head of National Accounts at the Scottish Government and has over a decade of experience working in different areas of statistics and analysis.

Emma Congreve is a Senior Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Deputy Director at the Fraser of Allander Institute. Emma's work at the Institute is focussed on policy analysis, covering a wide range of areas of social and economic policy.  Emma is an experienced economist and has previously held roles as a senior economist at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and as an economic adviser within the Scottish Government.