These past few weeks have been chaotic for the Scottish National Party. The veil of pretence of the past couple of decades has been ripped away. It has been like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when all is revealed, and the people of Scotland are left saying, “We can see you.”
A week from now, we will have a new leader of the SNP, so this could well be the last time I have the pleasure of speaking in a debate opposing Shirley-Anne Somerville in her role as the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills—who knows? We have had our differences, but, although she is a political opponent, she is not and has never been my enemy. Regardless of what transpires next week, and in all sincerity, I offer my best wishes to her personally.
Extending this conciliatory tone, I am pleased to say that there is a great deal of consensus that can be struck around this important subject that we are debating if we push aside the usual dollop of hubris in the Government’s motion and in the cabinet secretary’s speech. We will support the Government’s motion and Labour’s amendment, and I hope that the Government will support both of the amendments.
Scotland flourishes when the opportunities of our young people are maximised. For their futures and for all our futures, we need to address the significant challenges that our nation faces: the need for better productivity, the need for skills to take advantage of automation, artificial intelligence, the transition to net zero, and an increasingly volatile global situation. That is why we should consider the report “Choice, Attainment and Positive Destinations: Exploring the impact of curriculum policy change on young people”, which was published recently by the University of Stirling and the Nuffield Foundation. It speaks to a need to ensure that Scotland’s young people get the broadest possible general education covering the broadest possible range of subjects. We cannot afford to narrow their choices, because we need the talent of every single child regardless. That is why the shortages—already highlighted—of science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers must be addressed. We need to do everything we can to attract people with specialist skill sets into the teaching profession. We need inspirational teachers to lift the gaze of our young people and to show them a world of possibilities.
The Scottish Government’s social research report “The Impact of Scotland’s Developing Young Workforce Strategy on Education”, which was published last week, speaks well on the need to move beyond the attainment of qualifications and to focus on meta skills. A big part of my leadership role in business before I was elected to public office was about building talent. It was about the recruitment and retention of talented people. Employers are always on the lookout for people with skills in team working, group leadership, thinking outside the box and problem solving. There is a real cost to businesses when they cannot recruit skilled people. There is the cost of recruitment itself, but there is also the opportunity cost of lost productivity that is down to poorly skilled workers and missed business opportunities.
We need businesses to be engaged in our schools—that is clear—and we do our young people a grave disservice when we fail to properly expose them to the real world of work. We fail them because we do not allow them to see the vast possibilities that exist for them. We fail them when we do not help them to understand that the world of work is crying out for people who have their talents, skills and passions.
That is why we need to expose our children and young people to the world of work, and I cannot see why we cannot do that from the earliest years. Play is a very effective way to make that introduction. We can give our young people a vision of their possibilities, reinforce that vision by bringing them into contact with a whole variety of businesses, sectors, roles and career choices throughout their years of broad general education, and then help them to be personally equipped with the confidence, resilience and skill sets that they need to take advantage of the opportunities that exist.
Businesses can and must make that investment in our classrooms. There is no doubt that it is in their best interests to do that, but we must be sure that, when businesses make the investment—when they prepare to provide support—they do not come up against a brick wall and there are not barriers to their getting into schools. Although there are examples of schools opening their doors to the local business community and interacting with all kinds of businesses and organisations, there are also places where none of that happens. That must change. There cannot be a postcode lottery in matters as important as these.
The social research paper that I mentioned finds that a barrier to curriculum-based work-related learning is that teachers feel overburdened as it is and they lack the confidence and resources that they need to build work-related learning into their lessons. Therefore, we need to support our teachers and help them to make that possible, because it is the kind of innovative approach that shows what Scotland’s educational experience should be. It needs more support and it needs to be rolled out across the country, so that all our young people can benefit. We need wider recognition of the importance of sound career guidance from secondary 3 onwards. I welcome the work that is being done in the area, but I want us to go further.
We also need to recognise the importance of personal mentoring, especially in the senior phase. That should not be a tick-box exercise. We should draw on all available talent from across the community—from businesses, professional bodies and organisations in the area. I have nothing but praise for all those who are already mentoring young people across Scotland, very often in a voluntary capacity. Let us overinvest in helping young people to see what their options are and in helping them to get to the places they want to get to.
We will all be winners when we help young people to win, but there is a disparity that is holding us back. Traditional, ingrained attitudes towards technical subjects and technical and professional qualifications are holding us back. Too many people still believe that there is a best pathway for a child that involves passing highers and advanced highers and then going to university. For some young people that is the best path, but there are other paths that are just as good.
What you are talking about is making me think about what is happening locally in Dumfries and Galloway, where businesses—Jas P Wilson in Dalbeattie is one of them—are engaging with schools and the kids are being valued for choosing whatever path they want, which might not be university; it might be vocational skills. Would you agree that there is work being done out there that is exactly what you have been on your feet, gaun on aboot for the past few minutes?
Through the chair, please, Ms Harper.
Apologies, Presiding Officer.
Emma Harper is right in saying that there is, indeed, some really good work going on, but it is not equally distributed across Scotland and there are gaps. Filling those gaps should be a priority. [Inaudible.]—possible educational experience. As long as we hold on to the old out-of-date ideas about the value of different pathways that are available to young people, we will hold ourselves back as an economy and a society.
Similar to my colleague Emma Harper, I notice that a lot of great work is taking place in Inverclyde—my party does not control Inverclyde Council. Will Stephen Kerr name the local authority areas where there is a problem that he would like to be fixed?
I will not do that, for obvious reasons. That is not the purpose, and it is not a good use of my time.
In the spirit of consensus, and just in case this is our last debate, I welcome Stephen Kerr’s remarks on the matter. I encourage him, if he has not done so already, to read the interim report by Professor Louise Hayward, which is trying to get to how we see not just one right or successful way through school, but a myriad of ways. We must reform to be able to capture that in its widest sense.
I agree with the cabinet secretary in respect of Louise Hayward’s work. I look forward to the full report coming out in, I think, May.
I challenge the Government that, if it truly wants to ensure parity of esteem—I think that we all do—it has to start with parity of funding. We should fully fund our young people’s choices, whether they go to university, to college or into an apprenticeship. That would go a long way towards addressing the funding issues that our colleges have. That is the real world, and I hope that the minister who responds to the debate will not seek to deny that there is a financial challenge.
I am making an appeal to social justice and the common good, because the issue is equality of opportunity. That is what is needed. Regardless of who somebody is, what their background is or what postcode they live in, they can achieve what they want to achieve, be what they want to be and do what they want to do. That is what being a young Scot should mean.
That is the philosophy on the Conservative benches, and we will support all measures to make it a reality for every young person in Scotland. When we invest in our young people, we invest in the future of our nation. To have a Scottish education system that is worthy of its heritage and of the young people that it serves, we must build a system of education that offers diverse opportunities to engage with work, different ways of learning and the possibilities that the future holds.
I urge all members to support the amendment in my name.