Skills Strategy

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 12 September 2007.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 2:30, 12 September 2007

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-443, in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on the Scottish Government's skills strategy.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 2:34, 12 September 2007

I welcome this opportunity to set out to the Parliament how the Government will assist Scotland in stepping up to the mark in skills—skills for life and skills for an economic prosperity that is shared fairly.

During the education debate in June, I announced that the Government would develop its skills strategy as part of our first 100 days commitments. "Skills for Scotland: A Lifelong Skills Strategy" was launched on Monday, and it sets out our ambitions for skills in a lifelong learning context. It is our response to the Leitch review of skills, but it not our programme for its implementation. That is deliberate.

Liz Cameron of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce was "delighted" with our skills strategy, and commented that we need a

"high-skill economy that makes the best productive use of these skills".

That is where the approach in Scotland differs significantly from the Leitch review of skills. Whereas Leitch's focus was on growing the number of qualifications, the focus in Scotland has to be on supply and, importantly, the use of skills.

The skills strategy is our vision of what we need to develop. As for how to develop that vision, we are issuing a call to action to all the players who are involved in the skills agenda at every level. The intention is to work together with all our partners to focus on how to deliver, developing policies that are focused and relevant and which will make an impact. The how of local delivery will be determined with all key partners in skills development. We will take forward our policies on skills development by weaving them closely with our policies on economic development, business improvement and innovation.

On cohesion, we need to overhaul and simplify the organisation of support for skills and training development by doing two things: first, by creating a national focus on skills by bringing into one organisation those public agencies that support skills and learning; and, secondly, by bringing greater cohesion and support to the local delivery of skills development.

We will merge Careers Scotland with learndirect Scotland. That is an initial step to form the nucleus of a body that is focused on skills, with a much greater focus on the needs of the individual. I note Murdo Fraser's amendment and I indicate to him and to the Parliament that a further announcement on skills and training will be made when my finance colleagues make a statement in the coming weeks about the reform of Scottish Enterprise.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

On the merger of the careers service, I regret that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning seems to be the first minister in many decades to have broken the cross-party consensus that our approach to service delivery should meet the particular, distinct needs of the Highlands and Islands. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has different powers from those that apply elsewhere. Even now, could she reconsider the approach to merging the careers service in the Highlands and Islands that she has described, so as to allow HIE and the local authorities there to develop a distinct approach to services in that very distinct part of Scotland?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I will respond positively to the member. I was discussing exactly those points with representatives of Highlands and Islands Enterprise during my visit to Inverness only a few weeks ago. There is an important recognition that local delivery mechanisms might be a bit bigger and wider in some parts of Scotland compared with some of the local delivery mechanisms that we might expect to find in the central belt. Elsewhere in Scotland, we want to build on the very synergies that have developed in the Highlands and Islands. I hope that the member will acknowledge the supportive comments and the positive response to our proposals that I have received from colleagues in Highlands and Islands Enterprise—particularly from those who are involved in skills and training. I spoke to Willie Roe about the matter only this week.

For the first time, our strategy spells out clearly that every one of our partners who is involved in the delivery of skills development is part of one lifelong learning system. We will develop a more focused, streamlined and flexible system that will be better suited to developing the needs of Scotland today and tomorrow. The system will be joined up; it will combine national and local delivery while focusing on the needs of the individual; it will be built on good practice; and it will focus increasingly on the individual's needs, aspirations and potential, as well as on the needs of business and the economy.

Our second principle is individual development. We will balance the skill needs of employers with the skill needs of individuals; we will develop coherent support systems that increase individual control and choice over learning; we will promote equal access to, and participation in, skills and learning, recognising that different people have different needs, are in different situations and have different goals; and we will focus on the individual at each stage of their journey through lifelong learning.

"Skills for Scotland" acknowledges that the foundations for skills development are laid during the early years. That means core skills: reading and writing; encouraging positive attitudes to skills development and the world of work; and embedding the knowledge and skills that will equip children to continue to learn and develop throughout their lives. The curriculum for excellence programme will make skills development all the more visible for teachers, young people, parents and prospective employers.

It is right that we focus on the development of high levels of skills in literacy, numeracy and information technology. Without those core skills, the development of other skills is compromised. The Confederation of British Industry, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Federation of Small Businesses have all supported that emphasis in our strategy.

We are committed to giving young people greater access to vocational education from the age of 14 and the opportunity to build up a wide variety of skills—skills to which the young people are suited and which employers will value and use.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the minister accept—I hope that she does—that our further education colleges and universities, which will need extra funding, will be the main drivers of the strategy? Does she further accept that they will need more resources from the Government? If so, how much more funding does she envisage?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I accept that colleges in particular—and, increasingly, universities—have a central role. It is irresponsible, however, to start spending a vast amount—hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money—without knowing the outcome of the comprehensive spending review and the results of the budget allocation from Westminster.

We intend to achieve parity of esteem between vocational and academic learning—there is a crucial and strengthened role for colleges there. Skills development goes hand in hand with an enterprising and entrepreneurial outlook. We need more young people to be able to create ideas and have the confidence, determination and skills to translate those ideas into positive action for economic and social benefit. Scotland's employers will continue to play a crucial part in that effort, and we will continue to encourage them to work in partnership with our schools and teachers in order to give young people meaningful experience of the world of work.

We are committed to developing Scotland's worldwide reputation for excellence in enterprise education. We acknowledge that those furthest from the labour market live in a variety of circumstances and need to be supported through flexible provision towards sustained work and further skills development in the workplace. Our strategy therefore outlines our intention to integrate employment and skills services to help individuals move from long-term unemployment to sustained employment and in-work progression—perhaps it has greater similarities with the Leitch review in that respect. We acknowledge that closer working with Jobcentre Plus must be included to ensure that we are delivering a system for the benefit of all, and we intend to pursue that with determination and vigour.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for giving way. I want to follow up the point about what we understand to be the commitment to additional funding in the tertiary sector. Why is it considered responsible to announce funding for the abolition of road tolls, for the capital plan for schools, for a new entrant scheme for young farmers and for new housing but not to give a commitment that funding for the tertiary sector will grow over the spending review period?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Let me explain to Jeremy Purvis, who I think is a former finance spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, that there is a difference between longer-term funding and baseline funding. The capital funding for schools, which is an important part of our commitment to the early years, is from this year's funding. If one is looking at the uplift of hundreds of millions of pounds of investment—

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Of course the announcement is new: it is about money that we have. The problem that we had with the previous Executive was that it was not sure what funding was available. I will make further comments on that tomorrow morning. We have to have responsible finances. I will deliver improvements for and investment in colleges and universities, but that has to be done responsibly as part of the comprehensive spending review.

We are committing this Government to supporting young people aged 16 to 19 who need more choices and chances so that they can improve and make a positive contribution to Scotland. Unlike Labour members, I do not think that raising the school leaving age to 18, which is implicit in the Labour amendment, is the way to do that. I hope that my commitment to continue to prioritise those young people will command support from members.

Our skills strategy recognises that people, especially those who continue to face multiple barriers to participation in learning and work, are looking for targeted advice that is specifically for them and those whom they support.

The Scottish credit and qualifications framework is central to the strategy. It is one of the few frameworks worldwide that embraces both academic and vocational achievements and the potential to recognise prior learning. It is important that we recognise and value the skills that individuals acquire at work, whether through informal on-the-job learning or more formal learning. The SCQF helps to achieve that and provides an enviably strong launch pad to further achievements.

I recently met Commissioner Ján Figel' from the European Commission, who was impressed by the SCQF. The Commission launched its e-skills strategy—e-skills for the 21st century—last Friday and we will ensure that Scotland participates fully in it. A week ago, I met David Lammy MP to discuss the skills agenda.

We commit to refreshing modern apprenticeships and will embed fully the SCQF in that programme. We believe that, in the past, too much emphasis was placed on achieving volume targets. We are committed to ensuring that modern apprenticeships meet employers' current and future needs, providing security of employment for individuals to earn while they learn new skills that are directly relevant to their job. That is why we have announced in our strategy that we will implement the conclusions of the recent modern apprenticeship consultation.

In particular, we will extend modern apprenticeships to level 2 Scottish vocational qualifications and phase out the current skillseekers programme. That will substantially increase the number of apprentices, help participants to progress to other qualifications such as higher national diplomas and degrees, and further help to achieve parity between vocational and academic qualifications.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I have already taken an intervention from Mr Rumbles.

Working and learning are often seen as two distinct and separate entities, with the learning to be completed before the working can start. In practice, however, we never stop learning, and the changing workplace demands that we keep learning if we are to continue to be effective contributors. I am determined that the SCQF will help us to achieve that.

We have called the third guiding principle "economic pull". Scotland has a proud history of investment in skills. However, although our skills and qualification levels are higher than those of the rest of the United Kingdom, our productivity lags behind. We agree with Lord Leitch's analysis that we need to improve levels of skills in order to unlock our economic potential, but we do not agree that simply injecting more skills into the labour market will have the economic effect that we seek.

Also, Leitch wants to subsidise employers to badge skills that people already have and to charge employers a levy for training, whereas, in Scotland, we need to focus on developing further skills and, more important, the use of skills, as the Scottish Chambers of Commerce reminded us. That is widely recognised as a desirable key difference.

Our problem in Scotland is not characterised by the supply of skills but by employer demand for skills and how those skills are utilised in the workplace. The extent to which skills utilisation happens in practice depends on a range of factors. Our strategy goes further than Leitch and is designed to suit Scotland's needs and ambitions. Our approach will ensure that Scotland contributes as fully as possible to the newly established UK commission for employment and skills.

We need to understand that employers who face challenges in shaping their future will demand the very best from our education and training providers.

This Government's skills strategy is, above all, a challenge to ourselves and to all our partners to develop the detail of delivery and achieve a smarter Scotland with a globally competitive economy. We want a Scotland where people can work in teams and are confident, creative and hungry continually to learn new skills; a Scotland where employers are able to access a skilled workforce that is increasingly literate and numerate, where small businesses are encouraged to grow and where there is strong, coherent support for businesses of all sizes; and a Scotland where migrant workers and overseas students play a valuable role in an expanded workforce and economy and where learning and training providers work in one system. We want a smarter Scotland that is built on the firm foundations of the talent that each and every person has the right to develop—a Scotland of opportunity and fulfilment.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that to equip the Scottish economy for the 21st century it will require its people to be skilled; notes the publication of Skills for Scotland, the Scottish Government's strategy to help deliver the skills needed for the 21st century, and the call to action that it contains for individuals, employers, national and local government, trade unions, colleges, universities and schools, community learning and development providers, training providers, public agencies and the third sector, and urges all those involved in the delivery of skills in Scotland to actively engage in its implementation.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour 2:47, 12 September 2007

On the first day of Mr Salmond's tenure as First Minister, in the very first question that Jack McConnell put to him, Mr Salmond was asked why skills had not featured in the statement of Government priorities that he gave that day. Mr McConnell did not receive an answer that day, and it has taken 120 days more to get the answer—of sorts—that we have today in the form of the strategy.

The document is gracious enough to acknowledge that the strategy builds on the work of previous Executives. It says:

"Scotland is the only nation or region of the United Kingdom where the percentage of people with a Higher Education qualification outnumbers the percentage with a basic school leaving qualification.

Scotland's skills profile has also been improving faster than that of the rest of the UK".

That is not a bad place for us to be in. However, we know that with, for example, China and India producing 4 million graduates every year, it is not a place in which we can stay unless we constantly and urgently raise our game on skills.

We know that in 2020 three quarters of the workforce will be made up of people who have already completed their education and entered the workforce, which means that in-work training is crucial. Therefore, I am pleased that the document commits ministers to supporting the successful Scottish union learning fund and uses the excellent example of the agreement between the Amicus section of Unite and Rolls-Royce to illustrate it.

The document is also correct to say that we have to ensure that our skills profile matches the needs of the labour market. That is a key task of the sector skills councils. The strategy's commitment to that approach and its endorsement of the UK commission for employment and skills is another welcome aspect of the document.

However, if the Government believes that workforce development is central to economic success, that the skills profile must meet the needs of the economy, that we must improve the utilisation of skills in the workplace and that we must stimulate and increase demand for skills from employers, why has it shifted ministerial responsibility for skills away from responsibility for enterprise and economic growth?

I know that ministers will say that they approach government in a cross-cutting way and that economic growth is central to all ministers' objectives. However, I hardly believe that when the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism meets the enterprise sector or the energy sector—and I think that the voluntary sector is next in line to have its concerns and views mind-mapped before its eyes—skills do not come up. The question is whether the minister with responsibility for skills is at those meetings when that happens.

When the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning discusses with the further education and higher education sectors their central contribution to raising the level of skills and qualifications—to say nothing of their role in driving innovation and its commercialisation—is the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism in the room?

The importance of that is shown in "Skills for Scotland", which quotes Les Carey of the Rolls-Royce factory at Inchinnan, who said:

"our competitors use similar machine tools and methods of manufacture ... our differentiator in the market place is our employees."

When she was the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina said something similar:

"Keep your tax incentives and highway interchanges, we will go where the highly skilled people are."

If we are to be sure that Scotland remains where the highly skilled people are, we need to step up a gear now.

The disappointment with the strategy is not in what it contains, with which fault largely cannot be found, but in what it does not contain. The strategy's top line on its launch was a merger of two public bodies, but the merger is a poor fit and is opposed by those who deliver the service.

Ten years ago, apprenticeships had all but disappeared from Scotland—there were about 2,000—but now there are 35,000. However, we need more and we need them now. In my constituency of East Lothian, when the council advertises for an apprentice, it receives 300 applications. That means that for 299 people who are ready and willing to take up an apprenticeship, the opportunity is still not available.

We need more modern apprenticeships. The strategy document says that what matters is the quality and not the volume of apprenticeships. I disagree. What matters is the quality and the volume of apprenticeships. Of course they should be of the highest quality, but Labour was committed to establishing 50,000 apprenticeships in Scotland. How many will the Government deliver?

If we are to be sure that Scotland remains where the highly skilled people are, we cannot afford to waste the potential of a single young person. In 2007, no person between 16 and 18 years old should be left to drift on benefit. Every 16 to 18-year-old should have the chance of a job, proper training, a quality volunteering experience, a college or university place or a meaningful fifth and sixth year at school. We accept that what we propose might not be the only way to achieve our objective but, elsewhere in the UK, the Government is making that aspiration a reality. Here, no such guarantee has been given.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that Labour's UK Government and the previous Administration here presided over our having many young people who are not in education, employment or training? What does he want to do that is different from what is published in the Scottish Government's programme and which will make a change?

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

The cabinet secretary made our position clear. We want no young person to leave school without having one of the options that I described in place. The cabinet secretary disagreed with us and we are willing to listen to other ideas. However, the fact that many young people do not have such options is exactly why it is important to have a guarantee in the skills strategy.

If we are to be to sure that Scotland will remain where the highly skilled people are, we need more young people to have greater access more quickly to a wider range of vocational opportunities. We proposed doing that through 100 skills academies throughout the country. Other parties have other ideas about how to progress matters—we are happy to discuss them—but the Government has no ideas in its strategy about how to do so.

The same applies to science. "Skills for Scotland" points to the importance of science and technology skills in the knowledge economy, but the paragraph on pages 26 and 27 that is devoted to that matter must be one of the most complacent passages of blandness ever in a Government document, which, I suppose, is an achievement of some sort. Labour wants to establish science and maths centres of excellence. We know that such a model works in the United States. Again, there may be other approaches, but the SNP's document contains none of them.

Last week, the First Minister told the CBI the old joke about economists—if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, you would not reach a conclusion. However, the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee recently laid three of Scotland's top economists end to end, and those economists did reach a conclusion. They concluded that to raise the level of skills and qualifications, we must invest in our children's early years provision. I know that the cabinet secretary agrees with that, because I heard her say it before, during and after the election campaign. Indeed, she said it again today.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party

If the proposal is to invest in children's early years provision, does that mean that we must wait another 15 or 16 years until skilled labour forces come on to the market?

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

The point is that if we do not invest in early years provision now, we will be in exactly the same position 15 or 16 years from now, having exactly the same discussion. Of course, investing in such provision is not the only thing that must be done, but it is important and urgent.

The SNP promises another strategy in 2008. Perhaps we can hope for a plan by 2009 and action by 2010. The SNP loves to describe its Government as a whirlwind. We must now be at the eye of the storm where nothing much happens.

Skills is an area of endemic market failure. The Government must intervene to ensure that the needs of the economy and our people meet and match. Unfortunately, the SNP's strategy threatens to make skills an area of Government failure.

We are all searching for the silver bullet that will guarantee economic growth and prosperity. The SNP thinks that it is independence, but it is wrong. If there is a silver bullet, it is skills and education. They will drive our economic growth and allow us to meet the challenges of globalisation, compete with the emerging economies of the 21st century and prosper. Skills and education give our next generations the opportunity to be all that they can be, to raise their quality of life and that of their families, and to make real their hopes and aspirations. They ensure that we can build the houses that we need and power the prosperity that we want while we protect the planet. They ensure that we can have the future that we dream about. Without constantly improving, modernising and prioritising skills and training, the werewolves of lost opportunities, prosperity that passes by and frustrated potential will stalk our land unhindered, without the slightest interest in our country's sovereign status.

If there is a silver bullet, it is skills and education. That is why we cannot accept anything less than total commitment to a step change in the provision of skills and education in this country. We cannot accept organisational change without real purpose, aspirations without resources to back them up, or complacency where urgency is the imperative. That is just not good enough.

I move amendment S3M-443.2, to leave out from "and the call" to end and insert:

"believes it to fall short of the step change required in raising skill levels in Scotland, and calls on Scottish ministers to urgently bring forward proposals to increase access for apprenticeships, expand vocational choices in the school system and ensure that all 16 to 18-year-olds have the opportunity for education, volunteering, training or employment and guarantee the funding required to ensure that our universities and colleges remain world class."

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 2:59, 12 September 2007

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the opportunity to debate the Scottish Government's skills strategy, which was published on Monday. However, at first glance, I was rather disappointed, as the new Government seemed to have inherited from the previous Administration an unhealthy affection for thick, glossy and colourful strategy documents. As we know all too well from the actions of the previous Administration, the delivery of policies too often does not match the investment in the publications that promote them.

However, I do not want to be too dismissive of the skills strategy. In general, there is a lot in the document that we welcome. We all understand the need for a high-skilled economy, and I agree with much of what Iain Gray said. In an ever-shrinking world, there are more and more competitive nations that are trying to take our business away from us. We have heard about the competitive nations of India and China turning out millions of highly skilled graduates who are looking to take our jobs. If we are to compete, it cannot be on the basis of low wages; it must be on the basis of our skills and expertise.

Scotland has always had a good record in having a well-educated and highly skilled workforce. We must work as hard as ever to maintain that competitive position, but we have problems in certain areas. Many employers complain about skills gaps in the economy and the difficulty in filling particular vacancies. More and more employers rely on new recruits from eastern Europe to meet their needs. The sad thing is that I speak to far too many employers who tell me that, when they take on young people from eastern Europe, they are impressed not only by the skill set that they bring with them, but by their work ethos, which, all too often, exceeds that of people from our shores. That is a depressing situation of which the Government needs to be aware.

Allied to that, we have a serious problem with youngsters in the NEET category, in respect of which Scotland fares badly in international comparisons. Much of the Government's skills strategy talks about education, which is to be welcomed. It is good to see a focus on the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy as well as on soft skills such as team working and communication. Above all, our employers are looking for school leavers who can read, write and add up accurately, who can fit well into a working environment and who can relate to other people and customers. If they can do other things on top of those, that is welcome, but far too many of our school leavers lack those basic, essential skills.

Our support for the strategy is by no means unqualified and our amendment refers to two serious failings that have not been properly addressed. First, it was announced by the Government on Monday that there would be a merger of Careers Scotland and learndirect Scotland to create a new skills agency, although that proposal is not mentioned in the skills strategy document. Unlike the Labour Party, we welcome that proposal as far as it goes; the problem is that it does not go far enough. The Scottish Conservatives believe that we should have a new skills agency for Scotland that would combine the functions of Careers Scotland and learndirect Scotland, but which would also take on the skills and training functions that are currently exercised by Scottish Enterprise. We believe that it would make sense to bring together all the public sector skills responsibilities under one remit, not least from the point of view of streamlining Scotland's cluttered quango environment—an ambition that many people in the SNP Government hold dear.

It is a pity that that bold step has not been taken at this stage. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that, as part of the on-going review of Scotland's public sector—in particular, the review of the functions of Scottish Enterprise by Ms Hyslop's colleagues—that will happen sooner rather than later. I was interested to hear Ms Hyslop's comments on the issue, although she gave no commitment. We await with interest the outcome of the discussions in Cabinet on the matter.

Our second concern relates to vocational education. We have long believed that we need to increase substantially the opportunity for all youngsters from age 14 to access vocational training. We have had many debates in the Parliament over the years about the benefits of such a move. Time does not permit me to expand on those benefits at length, but it would be good news for the youngsters involved, good news for employers and good news for our wider economy.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

How would my constituents in West Aberdeenshire benefit from the Tory proposal for skills academies when most of them have no choice about which academy they attend?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

There is no reason why, in a rural area such as that which Mr Rumbles represents, there could not be skills units in all high schools. We could have skills academies in urban areas where there was an element of choice and where people were able to move around; in a rural area, the approach would have to be somewhat different.

The important point—

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Let me finish this point.

The important thing is that we move away from a one-size-fits-all education system to a more diverse system that provides greater opportunity. Where youngsters have a particular aptitude for, say, science or mathematics or technical subjects, why should we not be prepared to offer them the opportunity to access education in a different way from the current provision, given that that would provide benefits for them and for the wider economy?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Why not make every school a centre of excellence in the provision of secondary education rather than set up a new bureaucracy, new funding streams, new management procedures and new organisations to provide oversight? That is an incredibly burdensome approach.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Mr Fraser, you have one minute remaining.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Mr Purvis seems to have forgotten that he was part of a coalition that ran the Government of Scotland for the past eight years. If every school is not a centre of excellence at the moment, he should look to himself and to his party for the reason.

We want a diverse system in which different schools can excel in different subjects. That is the way to create excellence. The reality is that having comprehensive schools that provide the whole spectrum of subjects will not enable us to develop the excellence that would be possible in a smaller number of centres. That is a simple point about the practical delivery of policy.

Returning to vocational training, I am pleased that the skills strategy document pledges that the Government will address the capacity issues that act as a barrier to prevent young people from accessing vocational learning opportunities. The document also talks about expanding school-college partnerships. If those can be delivered on, that will be good progress indeed.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

As Mike Rumbles said in his earlier intervention, funding for further education colleges is an issue. I recognise that, if we are to expand further education provision, more funding will be required to make the system work.

Presiding Officer, I am already over time so let me conclude by saying that the skills strategy contains much that we welcome, although it also has serious omissions. I would give the cabinet secretary six out of 10 so far. If the Scottish Government is able to deliver everything in its glossy strategy document, I may in time be prepared to revise my mark upwards.

I have pleasure in moving amendment S3M-443.1, to leave out from "and urges" to end and insert:

"believes that all young people should be given the opportunity to access vocational education from the age of 14; calls on the Scottish Government to consider the establishment of skills academies as part of a diverse education system, and, while welcoming the merger of Careers Scotland and learndirect Scotland, calls on the Scottish Government to go further and add the skills functions currently exercised by Scottish Enterprise to the remit of the merged body, in order to form a complete skills agency."

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I would give Mr Fraser four out of 10 for timekeeping. Mr Purvis, you have seven minutes.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 3:07, 12 September 2007

I am starting to get concerned that the Presiding Officer has a marking mechanism for our various contributions.

We cannot succeed in the world without skilled, motivated and enthusiastic workers. Our society depends on ensuring that our most critical infrastructure—our people—is the subject of investment. There is no greater role for Government than to provide education and to support training so that our citizens have the skills to be active in our economy.

Years ago, young people in my constituency would have been pigeonholed as people who work in the mills, just as, in other constituencies, it would have been assumed that they would work down the pits. Today, the opportunities for school leavers and young people are almost limitless. Although the past eight years have been written off by Murdo Fraser today and by SNP back benchers last week, we introduced the schools-colleges review and provided record levels of funding for the school and college estate. We now have much closer working among schools, colleges and businesses. The business and skills agenda was a critical element of that, but it is given scant mention in the skills strategy document that is the subject of today's debate.

In my area, we have three new primary schools and a new secondary school. Some £30 million has been provided for a new co-located college and university campus that links in with secondary education. That is the type of ambition and excellence in schools that we want, Mr Fraser. We do not need to set up individual units within schools that would divide young people and remove opportunities, especially in rural areas.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Mr Purvis will be aware that we already have a number of specialist schools in Scotland. For example, St Mary's music school in Edinburgh is a centre of excellence that takes pupils from across Scotland who come to Edinburgh to specialise and develop excellence in music. Would the Liberal Democrats take away the funding from that centre of excellence?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

Mr Fraser well knows that our ambition is that every school should have the opportunity of providing excellence and opportunities for every pupil. The way forward is to link secondary schools with the tertiary sector and with the college estate rather than to halve the enterprise budget. That is a rather curious position, as it would draw money away from local authorities for providing such excellence.

Last week, Robert Brown described the Government's programme as being like that of John Balliol, the Toom Tabard—an empty coat. Today we are asked to endorse an empty vessel—a so-called strategy. The fact that the section defining its terms is longer than the section on funding left me cold. Sifting through management speak requires skills in itself, but have no fear—the Government has a call to action. Let me quote from it:

"We look to our providers and the Scottish Funding Council to work together to develop and implement strategies to deliver a step change in the skills utilisation of individuals."

Thank goodness for that.

Members will have their own favourite examples of gobbledegook from the document. Mine is on pages 33 and 34, where the Government shows its forensic understanding of the business world in Scotland. The document states:

"Choosing not to train may be the right ... decision for" businesses. That sentence is followed shortly afterwards by the statement:

"Equally, choosing not to train ... might be the wrong decision."

Clearly the Plain English Campaign had nothing to do with the document.

The new Government's logo could easily sit alongside the John Lewis slogan of "Never knowingly undersold". The spin is that this is a visionary document, a call to action. The reality is that there are no targets, no timescales, no measures of success, no commitment to measure success, no commitment to progress reports and no funding pledges. Exactly how does the document qualify as a call to action? It does not even mention the SNP's ambitions on class sizes, nursery provision, replacing loans with grants and paying off all graduate debt, despite the fact that it covers early years and compulsory and non-compulsory education.

The strategy is delivery lite. There is no mention of how the skills function of local enterprise companies will be replaced after the Government abolishes them. There are no targets for widening access and no figures for productivity in the economy, which is connected with skills and development. Regrettably, we still have productivity levels that are 20 per cent below those of France, 17 per cent below those of the USA and 13 per cent below those of Germany. The strategy does not even attempt to redress that with firm commitments.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member is almost five minutes into his speech. His amendment refers to the Leitch review of skills and its recommendations. Will he explain the Liberal Democrats' position? Which parts of the Leitch review should we be taking forward and which parts are we not pursuing? Will the member address his amendment?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I will certainly do so. However, it is right for me to highlight the deficiencies of what is termed a visionary document but is, in fact, an empty vessel. For example, we would expand the get ready for work schemes, instead of having a review that could lead to their abolition. Page 24 of the document sets out clearly:

"We will facilitate local design and delivery of learning for those who are furthest away from the labour market."

That will not be done by abolishing the existing schemes that do exactly that and removing the delivery of learning from local agencies.

The cabinet secretary asked about our response to the Leitch review. Ours is a local approach, based on local priorities, in a local setting, not a top-down, centralised approach. In our view, the solution is not to have an English-style, centralised single skills body that is located away from local partners. That is wholly counter to what the Government is seeking to do through outcome agreements with local authorities. Why does it not have outcome agreements with local enterprise bodies and local authorities to deliver its strategy, rather than one national skills body?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

I am afraid that I do not have time to take an intervention.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

The member is in his last minute.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

The strategy is big on setting up more quangos, which is something that we would not do. It will set up five new bodies or groups—new bureaucracies in a field that the Government says is too cluttered.

We have awaited the skills strategy for four months, and we expected that the Government would be specific about what it wants to do to expand provision of places in the college sector and to widen access. In part, that involves funding the sector properly. It is wrong for the cabinet secretary to have a volte-face from when she was in opposition, criticising Governments for not providing a clear indication of funding for the college sector. Now she says that it is irresponsible to give priority to expanding funding for our college and university sectors. Today we are asking the Parliament to vote to meet Universities Scotland's funding requirement of £168 million and the requirement for a 3 per cent real-terms increase in funding, year on year, for our college sector. The strategy will stop being an empty vessel and become real only if it includes actions that can be delivered and which we know can be successful. At the moment, it consists of proposals that do neither.

I move amendment S3M-443.3, to leave out from "the Scottish Government's" to end and insert:

"and regrets that the strategy contains no specific targets or indicators of success for improving skills in Scotland, fails to respond to the recommendations of the Leitch Review of Skills and makes no commitment to increased investment in further or higher education; calls on the Scottish Government to amend its strategy to include specific skills targets, including targets for modern apprenticeships and widening access, and details of how it will measure progress towards these targets and commit to report annually to the Parliament on that progress, and further calls on the Scottish Government to commit to providing an additional £168 million for Scottish universities and at least a 3% real terms annual funding increase for Scotland's colleges over the period of the spending review to ensure that the sectors can make an increased contribution to improving skills in Scotland."

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 3:14, 12 September 2007

I welcome the many positive signs in the skills strategy. Of course, I expect the Opposition parties to welcome most of them too, so that takes a load off my shoulders.

The absence from the strategy of artificial short-term targets, tick boxes and other bureaucratic afflictions strikes me as an excellent advance on previous approaches. Nothing has been as stifling to education or the provision of a highly skilled workforce as the desperation in recent years to collate reams of statistics about everything that happens in teaching and training. Nothing is more dispiriting to staff than filling in endless forms that add nothing to their efforts.

The mania for short-term targets, matched only by the frenzy for new schemes and crafty wheezes, fulfilled the need of some politicians to try to prove that they were doing something. I am delighted that the short-term targets, schemes and wheezes and political interference are being removed from the provision of education and training in Scotland.

I am sure that that will be a refreshing change for providers. Teachers and lecturers can now get on with the job that they are there to do without having to remember to tick a box every time they have a new thought. Allowing that freedom for the providers ensures freedom for learners to take full advantage of the opportunities on offer. As the skills strategy is put into practice, we should see more opportunities being made available to more potential learners.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

On the targets and ambitions that have been set, does the member propose that the funding council now reviews its strategic plan over the next three years? That plan is predicated on a number of deliveries and, as the cabinet secretary said in her strategy paper, seeking value for money requires targets to be delivered.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

If Mr Purvis has spoken to teachers in his area, I am sure he will understand that the bureaucratic affliction of ticking boxes is a nightmare for them. I welcome the fact that they do not have to do that any more.

Egalitarianism is one of the underpinning principles of SNP policy, but I also see it as an inherently Scottish trait—the lass o pairts and her male peer are fine examples to follow. Egalitarian training and education systems should deliver equal access to opportunities for every trainee and scholar, which is why the abolition of the graduate endowment and a fairer student maintenance system are being pursued by the Scottish Government.

That egalitarianism should extend further; equality should extend across qualifications. That is why I welcome the commitment in the strategy to establish parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning worked hard on that issue in the previous parliamentary session, particularly during the passage of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005. I welcome her commitment to ensuring that parity of esteem and I hope that she will continue to deliver on it.

I see no reason why a fully qualified joiner or plumber should be regarded as any less qualified than a fully qualified university graduate. Indeed, there are arguments for why a good plumber might be more welcome than a good philosopher, but equality and parity of esteem will do us for now.

The provision of a well-qualified and highly skilled workforce is a sure-fire way of ensuring a prosperous future for our nation, but that is not the whole story. Another valid point is that increased employability of learners helps to address their social problems, some of which can seem almost insurmountable at times.

The cabinet secretary launched her skills strategy on Monday and then visited Motherwell College. While she was there, I am sure that she had time to learn about some of the work that the college is undertaking with prisoners the length and breadth of the country. She will have been impressed, as I am, with the work that the college is doing to help increase the knowledge and qualifications of inmates around the country. It is known that increasing inmates' skills can help to address their offending behaviour and thus reduce recidivism. The increase in employability and chances of finding gainful employment mean that many more ex-offenders can turn around their lives and move away from being a social problem towards making a valid contribution to society. I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice will be just as pleased with such a result as the Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism will be.

Motherwell College deserves plaudits for the work that it does in Scottish prisons and the results that it achieves. I know that those plaudits have been received from others who work in rehabilitation, but it would be appropriate for Scotland's Parliament to add its weight to them. I am sure that gratitude comes in equal measure from those whose lives have been improved through the efforts of the college staff and I hope that other members agree that our thanks should be added to theirs.

There is a sense of hope and anticipation in Scotland just now and we have a moral duty to ensure that it turns into real results for the people of Scotland. The implementation of the skills strategy will help in that respect and I, too, congratulate the cabinet secretary on its publication.

The most important task that is faced by Scotland's politicians is how to prepare for the future, and I am delighted that this Scottish Government has taken to it with such relish.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour 3:20, 12 September 2007

This Administration talks big about the Scottish economy, but now it must walk the walk. We in Scottish Labour realise that the key to economic growth is investing in the skills of Scotland's people. A step change in growth requires a step change in our skills strategy, and only that will deliver greater prosperity for Scotland. It will not happen through changing our constitution. We need a little less national conversation, and more action, to skill up our workforce and ensure that Scotland can succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

As Iain Gray pointed out, we did not hear much about skills in the first days of this Administration. In this, as in many other areas, ministers have been short on detail, and I am not convinced that this strategy takes us much further forward.

Of course, it is right that the strategy should reflect the strong skills legacy that this Administration inherited, and that it should point out that Scotland is growing faster than the UK as a whole with regard to the number of people in the workforce who have higher education qualifications. Moreover, we can all agree on the need for increasing rates of productivity to match that achievement. Developing the Scottish credit and qualifications network and the enterprise in education initiative and delivering parity of esteem are also very important in enhancing skills—such approaches must certainly continue—but, among all the bland statements that Mr Purvis referred to in the document, it says of learning that

"Time spent going over old ground is time wasted."

However, that is exactly what the strategy does. Although we welcome its identification of areas of existing consensus, we need to hear what more will be done to upskill Scotland. Instead, we have to wait for further decisions about modern apprenticeships, new support mechanisms and the long-term early years strategy without any indication of the investment that will be made or its timing.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the member acknowledge the early action that we have taken on early intervention and support for children, and does he support my announcements today about the modern apprenticeships scheme?

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

I wish only that the cabinet secretary had attached the same urgency to any of the other important measures that need to be taken to give the impression that the Executive has a sense of urgency about this key issue. Unfortunately, she has failed to do so.

As Jeremy Purvis was right to point out, although the skills strategy says that our colleges and universities will be asked to do more, it crucially does not mention the resources that they will have in that respect. In our manifesto, we said that we would increase funding by double the rate of inflation until 2011. There is no such commitment in this strategy, even though the Administration is quite happy to commit to the vast spend needed to abolish all graduate loans.

The document is right to reflect the tertiary education sector's crucial role in a skills strategy, which is why it is all the more surprising that this Administration has not continued to link the enterprise and lifelong learning portfolios. The folly of that is reflected in the paucity of thinking in the strategy. The link was an important part of the previous Executive's strategy, which was based on growing a highly skilled knowledge economy. Ministers might now criticise our economic record, but our approach led to record employment and a level of sustained growth that for the first time in many years matched the rest of the UK.

We in the north-east are well aware that the fact that many areas of our economy, including manufacturing, are showing strong growth in itself creates skills challenges. Last night, representatives of the food industry, which is an important sector in our area, were in the Parliament to talk about skills development needs.

The strategy mentions working with trade unions. That is essential, as the trade union movement in Scotland has been at the forefront of encouraging work-based learning. The briefing that we received from Unison and others suggests that there needs to be much more consultation with the trade unions. In Aberdeen, the Amicus section of Unite has come forward with ambitious plans for an oil and gas skills academy. We were happy to support such plans in our manifesto, because we realise that, if we do not respond to the industry's concern that it will not be able to find enough people locally with the skills that are needed to do the required work, opportunities will be lost to people not only in Aberdeen but across Scotland and the industry's capacity to maximise potential growth in our area will be threatened.

Before the election, Alex Salmond appeared to acknowledge that and endorsed the union's proposals. However, his ministers have come before Parliament with a strategy that says nothing about skills academies, and the industry is now talking about going it alone with the proposal. I can understand its frustration at the lack of movement from ministers, but the involvement of public agencies will be required if the initiative is to progress. This is an area in which Government should be leading rather than following.

The strategy is hardly the great call to action that it calls itself; it is barely a whisper. It is short on ideas. Merging agencies will not make the difference. Concrete proposals and actions are required, but the strategy is well short on those. We have produced real proposals to meet the challenge.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

We were not prepared to rest on our laurels—we proposed to increase the number of modern apprenticeships to 50,000 a year, to tackle the problems of the NEET group and to establish skills academies. Mr Adam can shout from a sedentary position, but he knows about the demand that exists for an oil and gas skills academy in our area. It seems that this Administration is quite happy to rest on our laurels for us. That is why its strategy is totally inadequate.

We all share a vision of a Scotland whose people will be even more highly skilled in the future. In seeking to achieve that ambition, the SNP's strategy is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough and it will not deliver the step change on skills that we need.

Photo of Joe FitzPatrick Joe FitzPatrick Scottish National Party 3:26, 12 September 2007

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and welcome the Scottish Government's publication of its skills strategy earlier in the week.

If the Parliament will indulge me, I will give a brief background to the situation in my constituency, to underline why I believe that the skills strategy is a valuable step in getting people into work and tackling the unacceptable levels of deprivation in parts of Dundee and elsewhere in Scotland.

One of the main themes of the election campaign in Dundee West was employment. In the past 18 months, Dundee has taken a massive jobs hit, losing more than 1,000 jobs. The labour market statistics that were published by the Office for National Statistics this morning show that, as a proportion of the resident working-age population, the claimant count—the number of people who claim jobseekers allowance—in Dundee West is 4.2 per cent, which is the highest rate in Scotland. The Scottish average is just 2.7 per cent. The unemployment rate in Dundee West is 6.7 per cent, which is above both the Scottish and the UK averages and is one of the highest rates in Scotland. Those figures provide a comparison between areas in Scotland and it is clear that my constituency is an area that needs a successful skills strategy more than most.

However, the headline figures do not tell the full story. If we flip over the question and ask how many people are working, the true extent of the problem is revealed. The employment rate in Dundee West is just 71 per cent, which is lower than the Scottish average and suggests that nearly 30 per cent of people are not in gainful employment. I acknowledge that some of those people may be on incapacity benefit or unable to work for other reasons, but the figure is still high.

The figures also fail to indicate the relatively high number of people who, although in employment, are in what most people would describe as low-paid employment, which adds to the deprivation levels in Dundee.

It is in that context that the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in Dundee in little more than a year should be considered. Tesco's decision to move its distribution depot to Livingston was followed quickly by the announcement that one of the city's biggest employers, NCR, was to shed more than 600 jobs, which was a particular blow to the city. Along with Dundee City Council, the then Executive put in place a programme to help those workers who were losing their jobs, which included the provision of help to retrain and to learn new skills that they could use to gain new employment.

Now is not the time to discuss the rights or wrongs of what happened—I pay tribute to Nicol Stephen for his involvement in trying to lessen that blow—but there was considerable disquiet among the workforce that obstacles remained in place that made it more difficult for them to access training. A number of constituents who worked for NCR have come to me for help. They wanted to work and were willing to retrain—they just wanted a chance. That is just a snapshot of what is happening in Dundee. I am sure that there are similar stories from around Scotland of people who want to get into work but who just do not have the opportunity to do so.

One of the startling statistics in the skills strategy emerged from the survey that was carried out by Futureskills Scotland, which outlines that one of the biggest challenges for many businesses is to attract appropriately skilled staff. When the survey was carried out, there were 76,700 vacancies, 30 per cent of which were skills shortage vacancies. The jobs are there; it is just that there is a mismatch in our skills base.

I remind members that, whichever figures we use, the unemployment rate in Dundee is one of the highest in Scotland. Comparison of the two sets of statistics tells us that more needs to be done to get those people who are out of work, many of whom are desperate to find a job, back into employment. We need to increase the employability of people in Scotland, by enabling them to gain new skills or to utilise and develop the skills that they have.

The most recent labour market statistics for Scotland indicate that 160,000 people who are classed as economically inactive want a job. I am pleased that in its skills strategy the Scottish Government acknowledges the importance of that wasted resource. The strategy provides a new agenda for skills and learning and will enable us to develop Scotland's skills policies in a way that addresses the country's requirements. The strategy encompasses lifelong learning, including early years provision, schools, further and higher education, work-related learning and informal learning opportunities. The Parliament should welcome such an approach.

The 16 to 19-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training are of particular concern. According to the labour market statistics, 12.4 per cent of all 16 to 19-year-olds in Scotland are in the NEET group. It is imperative that those young people are not left behind and it is essential that we give them every assistance. I am pleased that the Scottish Government is developing proposals that will help those young people. It is clear that making individuals stay at school when they do not want to be there is disruptive to the kids who want to be in school.

I support the motion and I am pleased that something is being done to tackle the skills shortage in Scotland. We need more participation in learning and training if we are to increase employment and economic activity, which in turn will increase productivity and lead to economic growth, helping to tackle deprivation in my constituency and throughout Scotland. I am pleased to support the Scottish Government's proposals, which represent a valuable step in the process.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 3:31, 12 September 2007

I very much welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. Work is central to everyone's life. It gives us self-worth and a sense of who we are and it gives us the financial reward that supports our lifestyles. If we consider those benefits alongside the benefit to the community, we appreciate how important work is. The work that we do often depends on our vocational and more general skills, and educational qualifications offer a guide to how we might learn new skills to fit us for work.

In general, I welcome the skills strategy, but it needs to go further. There should be more provision for people who become disillusioned with school for whatever reason and do not have the certificates of educational attainment that would demonstrate their capabilities. Such people can achieve qualifications that provide that guidance for prospective employers through FE colleges. I have never doubted the worth of FE colleges, which was clearly demonstrated by West Lothian College after the closures of the Motorola and NEC plants in West Lothian a few years ago. As part of a task force, the college had the flexibility to respond to the needs of the redundant workers, many of whom had left school in the previous 10 years with few educational qualifications, mainly because well-paid jobs were available for which such qualifications were not required. The college responded with IT courses and courses to do with the service industries. The college provides for school leavers, but on that occasion it demonstrated that it could deliver lifelong learning and work with employers to match skills to available jobs.

The service industries will continue to provide jobs. There are great opportunities in retail and in tourism, in particular in the hotel and catering sectors. The cabinet secretary will remember having an enjoyable meal last June in West Lothian College, where catering students were using their skills in a business setting. We need more such initiatives, so I challenge the cabinet secretary to say what commitment she will give to further investment in the FE sector. I see no such commitment in the strategy document. Colleges have worked hard to show their worth, so where is the Scottish Government's investment in their work?

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

The initiative that the member described mirrors the work that goes on at Beeslack community high school in my constituency. Is the member concerned that if we go down the route of having skills academies, we will draw funding away from such initiatives in schools and colleges, which we would like to be expanded, and direct it towards the setting up of new structures?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

It is not a case of either/or; there is a place for both.

My other concern relates to the much-vaunted merger of Careers Scotland and learndirect Scotland. I hope that the Scottish Government can say clearly what it hopes to achieve from that. Some cynics—of course, I am not one—might say that, when people do not know what to do, they reorganise. Staff need to be reassured about the matter. The briefing that MSPs received from Unison Scotland on behalf of Careers Scotland employees raised concerns that this is not the right reorganisation. It is clear that if change had to happen, it should have brought the careers service closer to education providers in order to support young people at an earlier stage. The careers service has a crucial role to play in guiding people in the choices that they make on education/training or jobs—or a combination of the two.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the member remember the Duffner report and the fact that Wendy Alexander, who is soon to be the leader of the Labour Party, took the careers service away from local authority control? Did she disagree with Wendy Alexander at the time?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

It is clear that if we are to support young people and not let them become part of the NEET group, we have to work more closely with them at an early stage. By moving Careers Scotland in the direction that the cabinet secretary suggests, we may lose that opportunity.

We need to look at people's skills, highlight their individual skills and talents and offer advice on how they can develop those skills and talents and learn new ones. I ask the cabinet secretary to confirm the timescale for the merger and the financial package that will support it.

The skills strategy is fine as far as it goes. My criticism—I hope that it is viewed as constructive criticism—is that the Government could have said more. I would have liked more on the role of the voluntary sector in developing skills, on how we positively encourage people to develop their skills and on what financial support people can expect. Although the document says what employers, employees and training providers need to do, we should also be clear on the action that the cabinet secretary and the Government will take. We need action, not just discussion.

I put on record my strong support for an early years strategy that would give every child a strong start in life. The document should have told us what the Government plans are to help those who are nearing the end of their compulsory education and those in work who need to learn skills or to enhance existing skills. The cabinet secretary needs to respond to that challenge. The strategy is only a start.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative 3:38, 12 September 2007

There is genuine cross-party consensus on the importance of skills and of getting right the skills strategy—whatever that might be. Iain Gray put it rather well when he talked about the consequences of getting the strategy wrong and what that might mean for those individuals who are affected and for Scotland's potential.

Richard Baker articulated rather better than his Labour colleagues the inherent ironies in their position. I agree that we need a step change in delivering skills in Scotland, but if Labour Party members are saying that the previous Executive left behind such a strong legacy, surely it is right to question the need for a step change. There is an inherent conflict in defending the record of the previous Government and setting out the case for a step change.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative

I think that we are about to hear the answer.

Photo of Richard Baker Richard Baker Labour

The point that Mr Brownlee makes is pretty facile. We live in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Of course, we will have to step up to the mark and deliver more in terms of skills. The point is pretty obvious.

Photo of Derek Brownlee Derek Brownlee Conservative

I am happy to agree that we should deliver more in terms of skills. However, Richard Baker's mention of a step change suggests that something went fundamentally wrong in the past.

Instead of dealing with the shortcomings of the previous Administration, I turn to the current Government's proposals. The two fundamental tests for any strategy, whatever the policy area, are whether it is the right strategy and, almost as important, how it is implemented and whether that is done appropriately.

Of course, strategies are by their nature high level and general and it is the detailed implementation that determines whether they are successful. The risk for any strategy, no matter how worthy or well intentioned it might be, is that implementation may be botched or not followed through. In the eight years for which many of those who now occupy the ministerial benches were in Opposition, they spent a lot of time bemoaning the publication of strategy documents as an alternative to undertaking actions that were necessary to change Scotland. Those members must now be careful that they do not fall into the same trap.

The question that we must pose in assessing the strategy is whether, in four years, we will be able objectively to assess whether progress has been made in implementing it and whether it has made any difference at all. To do that, we need objective measures and timescales but, by and large, those are missing from the document that was published on Monday. That is less of a problem if we are simply considering a framework—if the document simply sets the scene—and if we get measures and timescales in due course. However, we must be sure that objective measures and timescales will be produced against which the implementation can be compared.

As many other members have said, the strategy is fine as far as it goes. If any criticism can be made, it is that it perhaps does not go far enough and is not radical enough. The strategy sets out 60 actions, although we are told that the list is not exhaustive. Some are for employers, some are for individuals and others are for government agencies, but they are all aspirational and, as far as I can see, not one of them as formulated in the strategy document is measurable in any way by outcome or timescale. The actions perhaps spell out what a successful strategy might look like when it is delivered, but they do not tell us how we get there. As there is a long lead time in educational reform between a measure being agreed and its being implemented and then feeding through to results, we need that detail soon.

In making that point, I might sound as though I look favourably on some parts of the Liberal Democrat amendment. However, the cabinet secretary's comments on the financial measures that are proposed in that amendment were entirely right, although perhaps Gordon Brown has been on the telephone to the Liberal Democrats to tell them something that he has not shared with his Labour colleagues. It would be surprising if any cabinet secretary were to commit to anything that will follow from the comprehensive spending review, for which we have to wait only a month.

I will move to some of the strategy's good features. One of the best things that is highlighted is the case study on the improvement in literacy in West Dunbartonshire, where an ambitious target was set to eliminate illiteracy in schools within a decade. As we know, the scheme is largely on track to meet the target. I have a simple thought, not just for the cabinet secretary but for all of us. If we could take that target out of West Dunbartonshire and apply it to the whole of Scotland, in relation not just to literacy but to numeracy and basic skills, just imagine what that could do to transform the opportunities of a generation of schoolchildren and, in time, to transform our nation's competitiveness.

The challenge for the Government is to move beyond the glossy pages and the warm words of the strategy document to a simple and focused approach. Much to my enjoyment, the cabinet secretary's colleague Jim Mather used to repeatedly berate ministers of the previous Administration for lacking a single worthy goal—I think that that was the way that he put it—or a single target to focus the mind. Imagine what the skills strategy for school education could achieve if it was not a basket of targets but one simple target that no child would leave Scottish education illiterate and innumerate, as so many do today.

As well as the importance of having a simple target, we can learn other lessons from the West Dunbartonshire experience. The experience there nails the lie that everything in education comes down to money or to the social background of the students. We cannot and should not accept the excuse that poverty is a reason for poor educational attainment. In one of the most deprived areas in Scotland, it has been shown that there is no reason why we cannot aim for and achieve universal literacy. Further, at an estimated cost of £13 per pupil per year, the West Dunbartonshire initiative, which works, is an awful lot cheaper than many that have failed. Let us have ambition in our objectives and take a long hard look at whether throwing money at problems is how they are solved or simply how those in power assuage their guilt about letting down the people who need them most.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party 3:44, 12 September 2007

I am afraid that I seem to have caught the throat affliction that has been going round the chamber recently. I hope that members will bear with my voice.

In welcoming the Government's comprehensive skills strategy, I would like to concentrate on the pledges that it makes to deliver coherent funding support for all individuals and to promote equal opportunity for those trapped by persistent disadvantage. Not all Scottish local authorities can provide statistics showing the number of 16 to 19-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training, but the figures that do exist show quite clearly the link between deprivation and individual, legal economic activity. For example, in the most deprived 15 per cent of areas in Scotland, the level of NEETs stands at a massive 30 per cent, compared with the Scottish average of 8.6 per cent. In Glasgow, with its large pockets of deprivation, almost 30 per cent of all working-age people are economically inactive. If we are to promote equal opportunity for all our citizens to enter the skills market, areas of deprivation are a good place to start.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

I am happy to help Dr McKee to relieve his sore throat. Given what he is saying about the NEET group, does he welcome, as I do, Glasgow City Council's new initiative to create a skills academy for construction skills in the south side of the city? That initiative will target the very group that he is talking about, so will he ensure that the cabinet secretary, when she is in discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, does not take away its funding?

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I am not familiar with the development of a skills academy in that part of the country, but I would be very happy to receive further information. Once I have assimilated that information, I will tell the member what action I will take.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

I will be delighted to give the member the information.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

A major problem becomes apparent—what to do with people who are addicted to drugs when there is a clear link between problematic drug use and deprivation. In my experience, the quickest way for someone to get on to long-term benefit without further interview or formality is to admit to a drug problem.

No one wants drug addicts in the office a moment longer than necessary. The drug addict is hastily ushered away and is often condemned as totally unemployable for years to come. But is that treatment appropriate? True, the chaotic drug user is a sad and sometimes frightening sight, yet the danger he or she poses is mainly to themselves rather than to others. They are often forced into a life of crime, but the crime is shoplifting, housebreaking and prostitution rather than assaults on council officials or civil servants.

The drug user on a treatment programme is often perfectly capable of holding down a job. Someone stabilised on substitute therapy can lead a virtually normal life. I say "can", but three things hold them back: first, the lack of help from officialdom—and the rest of us, to be truthful—that I have already mentioned; secondly, the lack of a skill needed to gain employment; and last but not least, the corroding lack of the confidence and sense of self-worth that people need if they are to venture successfully into the world of work. If we are to help such folk back into being full members of society, we have to tackle all three obstacles. Just tackling one will not succeed.

We then have to demolish tiny but very practical obstacles towards that rehabilitation. For example, making a drug addict swallow a substitute medication such as methadone every day in the local pharmacy may make sense from one point of view, but it is not very practical if someone has to attend for skills training or work every morning before the shop opens.

Next, we have to consider people who are, or have been, in prison, whether or not they have a drug problem. Many organisations will not employ offenders on principle. That is perhaps not surprising because, as well as having a criminal record, 75 per cent of all prisoners leave prison without having education or training. There are UK Government programmes to help offenders into work, but the take-up rate has not been as high as expected—possibly because it is necessary to disclose to potential employers that a client is an ex-offender.

Research in England and Wales shows that only half of all prisoners have the reading skills that are required for 96 per cent of all jobs. There is no reason to believe that the Scottish prison population is any different. Offenders need more schemes for increased training opportunities in prison—such as those that Christina McKelvie described—combined with the opportunity to gain recognised qualifications that will assist in the quest for a job on release. They also need help from our overstretched probation services to overcome personal and external barriers to becoming employed.

Why should we worry about drug addicts and ex-prisoners? Apart from our moral duty to look after all our fellow citizens, it is in our own self-interest to do so: the more of them who can be helped into rehabilitation, the less likelihood there is of our suffering from the crimes that they might otherwise commit. The brutal fact is that we need the labours of every able-bodied member of our society if we are to build the prosperous Scotland that we all wish to see. We need them in skilled work, not languishing on benefit.

It is amazing to find that the experts in what to do are all the people on the other side who presided over the skills sector in a way that resulted in a relative decline in Scotland's productivity. The skills strategy is a good start; let us support it and get on with the job.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 3:50, 12 September 2007

Prior to the summer recess, we were treated to a series of debates without motions. In some cases, such debates allowed for a useful exchange of ideas, although I am not entirely convinced that the purpose was not more to make life easier for SNP spin doctors, who were keen to talk up the lack of a defeat for their ministers. However, we now appear to be moving into the phase of strategies without substance.

There is undoubtedly consensus across the Parliament that the overall number of Government targets needs to be reduced, but the glaring absence from the skills strategy of any meaningful targets or measurements of success for improving skills in Scotland is deeply worrying.

Various members mentioned how central skills at all levels are to helping us to achieve the Government's stated objective of sustainable growth in the Scottish economy. Derek Brownlee made a point about the need for a step change, and I have always been struck by the suggestion that people who are entering the workforce now will go through multiple career changes, half of which will be in careers that do not yet exist. Therefore, it is disappointing that the minister has not been able to be a bit more specific about her intentions and the measures that the Government proposes to take.

As Murdo Fraser has made clear, Scotland's record on skills—particularly skills at the higher end—is comparatively good. The quality of our higher and further education establishments is, in many cases, world class and participation rates are high, although more still needs to be done to widen access. A widening of access will be one of many benefits when the UHI Millennium Institute finally secures university status. It will act as a driver for economic development throughout the Highlands and Islands and, in my constituency, reward the tremendous efforts that have been put in by Bill Ross and his staff at Orkney College.

Orkney College has proved itself remarkably adept at working closely with local schools and local businesses to ensure that the needs of students and employers are successfully met. However, meeting those demands is not straightforward, particularly for a smaller college. For instance, the demand for construction skills has grown quickly over recent years, and the capping of growth in ring-fenced funding through so-called SUMs—student units of measurement—is putting real pressure on the college. Although there may be the option to send trainees south, that will not suit many local employers, who will be reluctant for their apprentices to leave the islands for weeks on end. Moreover, one of the college's notable successes over the years has been in providing people of all ages in the islands with an opportunity to further their studies without the need to leave and attend institutions further south.

I would welcome the minister's view on what can be done, perhaps on a time-limited basis, to help smaller colleges accommodate the occasional spikes in demand of that type. Although I note her remarks on the comprehensive spending review—which, I have to say, are in marked contrast to her clarion calls in opposition prior to the last spending review, when the previous Executive delivered record investment to universities and colleges in Scotland—I would also welcome clarification on the current Government's position regarding the creation of the university of the Highlands and Islands. It is critical to the continued success and development of the Highlands and Islands that UHI thrives and achieves university title at the earliest opportunity.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

When I visited Inverness recently, I met representatives of UHI. I put on record the Government's support for the institute. It has great prospects and we look forward to its receiving university status when the due diligence that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education must embark on is complete.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I welcome the cabinet secretary's remarks.

The problem with the Government's skills strategy is not what is in the document but the lack of detail on how the Government will achieve its objectives. Those are objectives that we all share—raising skill levels in a highly competitive knowledge economy and ensuring that the needs of those who are not in employment, education or training are more effectively met. The cabinet secretary could have been pretty confident of a positive, constructive response across the chamber to a genuine call for action. The challenges that we face in retaining our competitive edge in education and skills are only getting tougher. It is therefore disappointing that, instead of making a call for action, the cabinet secretary has simply asked us to watch this space.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour 3:55, 12 September 2007

A well-trained and highly motivated workforce is crucial to every economy in the modern world. Scotland's workforce is currently well placed to compete in the modern world, with a skills base that is rising faster than in any other part of the UK, coupled with the highest level of employment in the UK. Those facts have been acknowledged by the Scottish Executive and have been highlighted by other members today.

Scotland has a well-trained, highly motivated workforce not by chance but by change—change by the previous Labour-led Administration. Labour's policies were to invest in our schools, colleges and universities, and to encourage them to work in partnership with industries large and small to tailor the skills that are needed in Scotland today and for the future. Those policies of change, which have put Scotland's skills base ahead of the competition, are now threatened by the Scottish National Party's skills strategy, which is full of warm words but is empty of any real measures for Scotland to build on our success.

A well-trained, motivated workforce is crucial to Scotland, and skills are central to growing the Scottish economy. The SNP has already split off skills from economic development in the Cabinet, by separating education from enterprise. Some people say that that is mad, and that the SNP appears to be rejecting joined-up thinking. Does the SNP also reject the importance of teaching our young people the skills that are necessary to compete in a modern, globalised world? The skills strategy has no commitment to investing in skills academies, thereby cutting off a real chance to raise skills levels in Scotland. Labour would create 100 skills academies to build on the work that is being done in schools and FE colleges, but not as an alternative, threat or challenge to FE colleges.

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

No, not at this point.

The SNP's skills strategy has no commitment to increasing the number of modern apprenticeships, which more than 34,000 young people have benefited from since 1999. The year-on-year increase in the number of modern apprenticeships since 1999 proves that security of employment and the development of skills can be achieved while increasing the number of available modern apprenticeships. Labour would boost the number to 50,000. That would be an improvement in both quantity and quality, as Iain Gray pointed out to the cabinet secretary earlier.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

The member stated that Labour would create 100 skills academies if returned to power. How many did it create when it was in government?

Photo of Cathie Craigie Cathie Craigie Labour

Examples such as the one in Glasgow that David Whitton mentioned show that we were on the right road—such developments were of great benefit to the people of our country.

The FE sector is critical to building Scotland's skills base. Sadly, the skills strategy contains no commitment to a properly funded further education sector. Before the cabinet secretary gets up again, I should point out that hiding behind the skills review is not sustainable. A properly funded FE sector can and does work to build the skills that are required to maintain Scotland's competitiveness.

In my constituency of Cumbernauld and Kilsyth, Cumbernauld College has its own dedicated training unit, which delivers a range of Government-funded programmes through strong and well-developed relationships with local employers. The unit gives students the opportunity to take up tailored job-centred training and gives them a chance to learn the skills that are necessary for Scotland to remain competitive. Cumbernauld College is one of many FE institutions in Scotland that are playing an enhanced role in skills development. The SNP must commit to a properly funded FE sector.

Trade unionists in my constituency are engaging in lifelong learning to enhance and improve their positions in their existing employment or to improve their qualifications and perhaps find their way into higher education. Rachael Bonner, a member of the Public and Commercial Services Union, is with us in the public gallery today. She is a PCS regional learning officer who is based at HM Revenue and Customs in Cumbernauld, and she was recently awarded the Scottish Trades Union Congress Helen Dowie award for lifelong learning. Some members may know that Helen Dowie was a lifelong trade unionist who invested considerable time and effort in promoting workplace learning. Sadly, she died two years ago, but I know that she would be delighted that Rachael Bonner is carrying on her tradition by encouraging, motivating and supporting trade unionists throughout Scotland to expand their knowledge and skills.

Trade unions, employers and teaching establishments are committed to training for the future. It is more than disappointing that the SNP skills strategy does not commit the Scottish Government to any real measures that will build Scottish skills. With no real commitment to investing in skills academies, increasing the number of modern apprenticeships or maintaining a properly funded FE sector, the skills strategy dismisses too many opportunities, in particular for young Scots. Investing in our future skills takes more than warm words; it takes innovation, hard cash and commitment. The SNP and its skills strategy fail on all those counts.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party 4:01, 12 September 2007

Like many members, I welcome this debate and I congratulate the cabinet secretary and the Government on producing "Skills for Scotland: A Lifelong Skills Strategy", which has gained a lot of support from business communities throughout the country.

The strategy and the motion rightly see training, education and employment as connected and interlinked. That all-encompassing approach, and the decision to streamline structures to make it easier for people to access learning and training, are to be welcomed, and smack of good, simple common sense. We are a small country, so it should be straightforward to match people with jobs and sort out areas of weakness.

I am glad that the strategy takes on board the need to ensure that everyone in Scotland has access to good advice and opportunities. That follows on nicely from last week's debate about the Crichton campus, when everyone in the chamber agreed that, if we truly want to rejuvenate our countryside, we must make education and training accessible to people in rural as well as urban areas.

However, we should not forget that many groups of young people in rural and urban areas remain alienated from training, learning opportunities and certain job sectors. That is why I am delighted that

"This strategy aims to promote equality of opportunity to those trapped by persistent disadvantage and to improve numbers of ... economically active" people from different groups. It is regrettable that, despite this being the 21st century, discrimination persists in Scotland. I encourage the Government to consider that when it develops the strategy.

Last month, I was delighted to attend an event in Glasgow hosted by Positive Action for Training in Housing. PATH was set up with the charitable objective of developing and running positive action training programmes throughout Scotland using section 37 of the Race Relations Act 1976. It addresses the issue of the underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic communities in housing, social work and related professions.

PATH commissioned the University of Strathclyde's equality and discrimination centre, in collaboration with Professor Gus John, to conduct research into the career aspirations and influences of black and minority ethnic young people in Scotland. Young people were surveyed and the overwhelming response showed that careers guidance and counselling lacked an attention to black and minority ethnic young people. The respondents felt that services did not meet the needs of BME people in the community, at work or in education.

Survey respondents were still largely influenced in their choice of career by their parents. That is probably true of most young people, but what I took from the lecture on the survey was that young BME folk were disproportionately influenced by their parents in their career choice. It was not suggested that that was a bad thing, but rather that it perhaps narrowed their choices. That, and the fact that BME young people are not happy with the formal careers guidance that they receive, shows that Government and local authorities need to ensure that the careers guidance that they provide does not alienate a host of talented young people, but rather encourages them to enter sectors of the workplace that they might previously have discounted.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

The member referred to the PATH report. Unfortunately, I see no mention of BME-specific issues in the Government's strategy—members have referred to other issues that it does not mention. Does Aileen Campbell agree that that is a shortcoming?

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

No, I do not. As I said earlier, the Government will examine different groups and ensure that people with various abilities and of various races and faiths are encouraged to get into the employment sectors that they want to enter. The strategy covers that quite adequately. I was just raising an issue that was brought to me last month, because I thought that it would be worthwhile contributing it to today's debate.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

I repeat what I said in my intervention during Dr McKee's speech. The new skills college that is being built in Glasgow will do exactly what Aileen Campbell is asking for: it will target groups such as the disabled, lone female parents and ethnic communities in order to give them skills. I would have thought that the SNP would support that.

Photo of Aileen Campbell Aileen Campbell Scottish National Party

Like Ian McKee, I look forward to seeing the document that was mentioned and finding out more about the situation.

The PATH evidence showed that, if we want to raise the career aspirations of Scotland's young people, we need to ensure that parents who inform young people have more information as well.

I subscribe to the Government's agenda of a smarter Scotland. I also want Scotland to be fairer. To ensure that Scotland has a sustained, vibrant and successful future, we have to use all of our people. We cannot afford to have a country in which some people feel alienated. I know that the cabinet secretary will work to ensure that the aspirations and ambitions of everyone in the country are raised and that their skills, education and training help them to get the jobs and careers that they want.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour 4:07, 12 September 2007

As always, I am pleased to speak in a debate about the central role that skills play in relation to our economic well-being. It will not surprise anyone that I intend to focus much of what I say on the realities of the workplace.

This debate needs a bit of honesty, and I am going to be as honest as I can be. As Cathie Craigie said, the document has a lot of warm words and highlights a lot of good activity, but I would not describe it as a strategy. I would like it to contain much more. If meaningful and timely engagement with learning providers, business and, perhaps, the trade union movement had taken place following the cabinet secretary's announcement of her intention to launch this strategy three months ago, I am sure that we would have had a much more substantial document before us today.

This is not criticism for the sake of criticism. I am genuinely disappointed, because the strategy relates to an agenda that I support.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Is the member aware of the consultations that have taken place on modern apprenticeships, lifelong learning and Careers Scotland, all of which involved training providers, colleges and trade unions?

Photo of John Park John Park Labour

I am glad that there have been consultations, but they have not given us much in the way of meat in the strategy. I hope that the minister's further discussions with those groups will be more fruitful.

I would like to give an honest assessment of the workplace. We must examine much more closely the role of business in this agenda. Although Governments have recognised the importance of skills development in recent years, employers, in general, have not. There have been some good examples but, generally, they are not reaching the mark.

In recent years, industry in Scotland has witnessed a vicious cycle of low levels of workforce investment leading to skills shortages and disproportionately high wages in some sectors. If we are being honest, we must recognise that not enough training has been undertaken by employers and that there has been too much poaching of skilled staff for short-term gain.

The strategy talks about the need to stimulate employers, but we do not need to do that; we need to challenge employers in a way that will stimulate industry demand.

The SNP wants to reduce business rates to boost performance, and there is support for that across the chamber. However, as I have said before, we must ensure that the many millions of pounds that a reduction in business rates would bring are invested not in a new fleet of BMWs for executives but in improving workplace productivity. That is why this Government must incentivise skills development and reward companies that invest in their workforce by giving them favourable business rates. That would be a measure of real partnership.

What about people who are already in work? There is no doubt that making FE and HE more financially attractive to school leavers is laudable, but that must not be done at the expense of people who want to return to work and get back into learning.

As Iain Gray said, more than 70 per cent of the workforce will still be in work in 20 years' time. From my experience, I know that discussions about moving on happen in workplaces all over the country. I have had such discussions with colleagues—not since I have been in the Parliament, but in previous jobs. However, the reality is that for someone who has a job and is paying rent or a mortgage, and who may have a young family, entering part-time learning is daunting enough—they can almost forget it. As for full-time learning, they can forget that. What support will the strategy give people in such situations?

The strategy says that about 375,000 people moved between jobs or into employment in 2006. That figure will need to increase if we are to match the pace of economic change in the future, but it will not increase unless we make going into part-time or full-time learning easier for people.

I will not spend too much time on trade union learning, as I have rattled off some of the figures before, but with the minimum of dialogue with the trade union movement the strategy could have made several commitments. The Scottish union learning fund has been successful—there is lots of evidence on what it achieves and where it fits in—so why has no commitment been made to provide finances to expand it? That is a no-brainer.

What about apprenticeships? Employers are crying out for targets and for more support to bring in apprentices. Fife alone will have two of the biggest construction projects that Scotland has ever seen—the new Forth crossing and the building of two huge aircraft carriers. Where will the jobs come from? We need to invest in modern apprenticeships, so why has no commitment been made to have more apprentices? No one anywhere would disagree with such a commitment.

The document is not a strategy but a narrative of positive achievements and accepted orthodoxies about learning. I had hoped for something with more substance and a little more pizzazz. I hope that the cabinet secretary takes seriously and uses constructively Labour members' comments. There is a consensus in the Parliament that we want to make a difference to skills, but members are frustrated that we have not gone as far as we could. We all want Scotland to compete and grow but, as many have said today, the strategy could have been so much more.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 4:13, 12 September 2007

My colleague Jeremy Purvis and others have highlighted some of the Government's strategy's more obvious general shortcomings, on which I do not intend to dwell. I am disappointed that the document is more akin to a party manifesto than to a strategy—it is full of well-intentioned rhetoric. As other members have said, it is a little short on detail. One advantage of having detail is that it allows a progress report to be produced that covers measurable progress, target groups, activities, partner progress, next steps, outcomes, measurable goals, objectives and results. That gives Opposition parties the opportunity to measure the success of what is done. The SNP legitimately used such tools to attack the previous Administration on several issues. The document that I am holding up is the review of the previous Executive's skills strategy. That is about accountability as much as anything else.

In this age of consensus, it is a bit harsh not to say something more positive, so I will say that I am pleased that the strategy does not mention the discredited English model of skills academies. I am particularly pleased about the five case studies that are success stories of the previous Administration.

I will pick up on several issues that show that the strategy is a little short on substance—perhaps more than a little. It contains an almost throwaway line about all-ages modern apprenticeships and resources. That begs a question about the security of the funding. As funding has not been mentioned, what will happen is questionable. I would like the cabinet secretary to deal specifically with that commitment.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

In my speech, I talked about the expansion of modern apprenticeships. We need to consider where we can target resources. We made an age-specific manifesto commitment, which we can develop. However, strategy is about the vision of where we want to go; detailed policy is about delivery. The member should not confuse the detail with the strategy.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

I thank the cabinet secretary for that instruction.

The Government's strategy does not contain any specific references to additional support for learning, aside from a passing reference at the bottom of page 16. There are limited references to English for speakers of other languages courses for incoming communities, and I cannot find any specific references to ethnic minority and black communities.

Where are the details on the SNP's strategy? Where is the support for the thousands of young people with special educational needs and the support to address their desperate need for educational and work placements during the transition period when they leave special education schools or mainstream schooling?

One thing—which I think Iain Gray referred to—really puzzles me. The strategy says that the early years strategy, for which we will wait possibly a year or 18 months, is integral to the skills strategy. The approach does not seem to be particularly joined up. Will there be a review of the current proposals or will the early years strategy be a bolt-on?

Those are not the only skills to which the Government is not paying attention. Where is the commitment to review our teachers' skills sets to include environmental and outdoor education and enterprise as part of teacher training, so that those who are charged with educating our children in those vital areas can educate with confidence and greater knowledge? Where is the commitment to the greener Scotland agenda? How does the skills strategy join up with that agenda?

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Does the member recognise that the curriculum for excellence agenda addresses precisely the aspects that he has just highlighted? Does he recognise that all the things that he has mentioned, including skills, are embedded in the curriculum for excellence and the school agenda?

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat

That the new Government is progressing the previous Administration's work is more than welcome news.

The baccalaureates that the SNP manifesto mentions are not mentioned in the new strategy, and I saw no commitment to the skills for work programme in it. That programme was much praised in the report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education that was published on 7 September, which stated:

"The findings in this report suggest that Scottish education is well placed to build on the good progress that has been made" in the skills for work area I am disappointed that not much has been said about articulation opportunities from higher national courses. The cabinet secretary may say that that is a policy matter rather than a strategic matter, but that is rather a neat get-out that is similar to the get-out relating to the comprehensive spending review.

There have been shortcomings in several areas, although we are beginning to see progress in some areas. We all look forward to seeing the policy details that the strategy will bring forward. I have not asked an exhaustive list of questions; rather, my questions have been indicative of a strategy that has more holes in it than a piece of Gorgonzola. It does not seem to address the issues. I look forward to further Government publications and announcements on the specifics of how it will progress its work.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 4:19, 12 September 2007

Members have unanimously made clear the importance of a skills strategy in developing a successful economy and more meaningful and fulfilling opportunities in education. In that respect, it is good that a skills strategy is now a priority on the Government's agenda.

As my colleagues Murdo Fraser and Derek Brownlee have said, the Conservatives will support the basic principles behind the cabinet secretary's announcement. We especially recognise the need for a much more coherent and consistent approach in delivering skills training. However, we believe that the strategy, as it stands, does not go nearly far enough in dealing with some of the fundamental issues. We therefore seek to use this opportunity to receive assurances from the cabinet secretary that she will address those issues as a matter of considerable urgency in the next few months.

First, with regard to basic skills in literacy and numeracy, the cabinet secretary has correctly identified that there is a need for far higher standards. That is self-evident from the worrying statistics on the number of Scottish school children—and, in some cases, university graduates—who leave education unable to meet the requirements of employers. Does the cabinet secretary accept that the situation will improve only if there is even greater emphasis on the three Rs in the primary 7 and secondary 1 and 2 curricula? Does she also accept that there must be much greater rigour in the school examination system to consolidate those basic skills?

The cabinet secretary will be only too aware of the fact that many people in the teaching profession—and, sadly, many employers—are deeply concerned about the dumbing down of the knowledge content of exams and about the fact that pupils can arrive at the end of their school careers without the necessary skills to move into a 21st century workplace. The sizeable amount of money that Scottish businesses must spend from their training budgets on remedial training rather than on training for new skills is evidence of just how serious the problem is.

On the same theme, I urge the cabinet secretary to ensure that there is absolutely no slippage in the timescale for the curriculum for excellence, which is, as she says, an exciting new challenge for Scottish schools in dealing with many aspects of broadening the skills base and the adult responsibilities that go with that. In my view, the curriculum for excellence has much to offer Scotland. It is essential that subject teachers be given the necessary assurances that resources and information will be given as soon as possible to allow them to develop their own areas. If we can get the balance right between greater rigour in the exam system, which is much needed, and the creation of imaginative and responsible citizens, which is the vision behind the curriculum for excellence, the skills strategy will have a far greater chance of success.

Secondly, we believe that we should go much further down the road to formal vocational training and apprenticeships. We welcome the cabinet secretary's moves to improve the links between schools and colleges although it is, ultimately, merely tinkering at the edges. Will the cabinet secretary agree to consider the practice of other European countries of allowing pupils to leave school at 14 if they and their teachers accept that pursuit of an academic curriculum is neither appropriate nor relevant? Learning a trade or a craft should never be regarded as being somehow inferior to an academic education. It is time to recognise that far more youngsters would be much more able to get a meaningful focus if they were able to harness their talents outside an academic classroom. That would also go a long way towards dealing with the growing number of young people in the NEET category.

The key point is that we must ensure that the skills that are fostered are the most appropriate for the jobs that are available. We should be mindful of the 8 per cent of vacancies in the workplace that remain unfilled because applicants do not have the necessary skills, qualifications or experience.

Murdo Fraser has asked the cabinet secretary to rethink her hostile approach to skills academies—I hope that she will do so as soon as possible. They are a logical extension of some of the principles that she has set out and that we have underlined this afternoon. They would do much to enhance the opportunities for specialist training, especially in areas such as technology, music and sport, in which Scotland potentially has so much creative energy. It is to be hoped that the reluctance to embrace the idea at the moment is not bound up with an obsessive attachment to a one-size-fits-all education system that, frankly, is increasingly out of date and is not meeting the needs of many youngsters in our society.

We agree with the cabinet secretary's desire to merge Careers Scotland and learndirect Scotland, but we urge her to go further and to create a single skills agency for Scotland that would not only take on the functions of those two existing bodies, but would incorporate the skills training that is currently undertaken by Scottish Enterprise. There is a clear need for streamlining, greater simplicity and much greater accountability.

I conclude by returning to my original point, which is to pledge the support of the Scottish Conservatives for a skills strategy as a priority of Parliament. We will support some of the basic themes that have been announced this week, but we are of the very strong opinion that there are still far too many missed opportunities to deal head-on with the problem that employers face as they seek a fully trained workforce that is capable of delivering greater economic progress for Scotland as a whole.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour 4:24, 12 September 2007

All the talk in the new parliamentary session is of how to reach agreement, of how to cross political divides and of a more consensual politics. In today's debate, there has been a lot of agreement—we all agree on the importance of the skills agenda. If we want to improve Scotland's productivity, advance our citizens' employability and grow our economy, we need to invest in developing people's skills. There is agreement across borders, too: our skills agenda is shared by our compatriots south of the border, where notably ambitious targets have been set.

Another thing that we can agree on is that, as a response to that pressing need and to the clamour for skills to move to the top of the political agenda, the new SNP Administration's skills strategy is wholly and entirely inadequate. That point has been made by nearly every member in today's debate. It would perhaps stretch credulity to say that there was mounting excitement leading up to the publication of the skills strategy, but the genuine expectations that existed have evaporated on sight of the document. Any sense of anticipation has been dashed. This is a shell of a document. As Jeremy Purvis said, it is an empty vessel.

Yes, the document outlines the scale of the challenge and it contains some policies that we can agree with, but where is the beef? Where are the radical ideas to invigorate and enthuse? Where are the funding streams to support learning? I get the impression that the strategy is simply the outline document that officials had ready waiting for the results of the election—waiting for the political direction that would provide the real meat of the proposals. What has the SNP added to that? It has contributed virtually nothing except for the one supposed headline grabber, which is the proposal to merge Careers Scotland and learndirect Scotland. However, that proposal has been lifted from the pages of the Tory manifesto. Like Richard Baker, I do not believe that tinkering with our institutional structures is the key to delivering on skills.

I ask the minister to state what single idea or initiative the SNP has added that was not already in the pipeline. As with last week's programme for Government, one gets the impression that the proposals contain some good things, but those things would have happened anyway under a Labour Government or progressive Administration. I am scratching my head and trying to see what the SNP has added. The SNP has pinched the Conservatives' idea of creating a new national quango—yes, that is right, the Conservatives' idea on creating a new quango—but the SNP lifted the wrong line from the Conservatives' manifesto. It has ignored the Tories' sensible support for Labour's skills academies. Whereas we promised 100 new skills academies, the SNP offers nothing. The document makes a brief mention of science but no mention of science academies.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

In his opening speech Iain Gray said that he was grateful that the document acknowledged the good things that the previous Administration had done, but the calls that have been made during the debate for a step change and for an urgent look at current provision suggest that there was some kind of failure in the past. More specifically, the fact is that 30 per cent of people in Glasgow are not economically active. Does the member accept that the endless and synthetic carping would be taken more seriously if members of the previous Executive acknowledged some of their failures?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

My point was that there is a genuine cross-party consensus, which I believe includes the SNP, that skills have gone to the top of the political agenda. We are now looking for action. As Iain Gray pointed out, the issue was highlighted by Jack McConnell in his opening questions to the First Minister and it has been raised repeatedly. We were repeatedly assured, "Don't worry—everything'll be addressed in the skills strategy." My point is that nothing has been addressed in the skills strategy. The strategy contains only a series of questions and vacuous aspirations.

All members in the debate have agreed that the strategy contains some good points, although there are not nearly enough of those. Among the policies that we will support are the emphasis on developing literacy and numeracy and—as Murdo Fraser pointed out earlier—the importance that will be given to encouraging core skills as well as so-called soft skills. We are also pleased at the strategy's endorsement of the sector skills councils and of the UK-wide approach that is taken to those organisations. It will come as no surprise to hear that Labour members very much welcome the support that the strategy gives to the work of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Scottish union learning fund.

We also agree on the importance of an early years strategy. I believe that the cabinet secretary is trying to build on the joint work of the previous parliamentary session's Education Committee and on the cross-party approach that was reflected in that committee's report. However, given the consensus that exists and the work that has already been done, it is disappointing that the strategy document contains only a promise to deliver an early years strategy at some time in 2008. If that strategy is as empty as the skills strategy that is the subject of today's debate, I wonder whether it will be worth waiting for.

However, I will take the opportunity to welcome what Fiona Hyslop said about modern apprenticeships in her opening remarks, which I could perhaps ask her to clarify. If I heard her right, I believe that she said that she is committed to expanding modern apprenticeships and that she will implement the recommendations of the modern apprenticeships review. If so, that is welcome.

However, there was no mention of a target; in fact, the cabinet secretary specifically shied away from an emphasis on volume. I do not believe that we overemphasise the number of modern apprenticeships, as she suggested—we stress the importance of quality. However, as my colleague Iain Gray highlighted, with 300 applicants for every apprenticeship that is offered, there is a clear demand for places that we need to meet. Labour's target of 50,000 modern apprenticeships provides not just an ambitious goal and an attempt to meet real demand, but a policy driver. Without such drivers, the fear must be that the Government's policy will simply drift.

I want to supplement the comments of my colleague John Park, who highlighted the importance of part-time learners. I point to the evidence that shows that individuals of all ages who want to improve their skills, in order to improve their employment prospects or to increase their earnings, do so overwhelmingly by studying part time, either at college or at university. In this country there is already a divide between full-time students, to whom we give support, and those who study part time, who pay tuition fees, with only those on the lowest incomes receiving any financial support. The new Administration's proposals to abolish the graduate endowment will widen the gap between full-time and part-time students. They will create a disincentive to part-time learning, even though we cannot deliver the skills agenda without it.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Ken Macintosh and John Park have made good points about part-time students. We will shortly make an announcement about their position.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I am pleased to hear that. I am sure that colleges, universities and the Open University await the announcement with anticipation.

Colleges are rightly identified as having a key role to play in any skills strategy. I join Christina McKelvie in paying tribute to Motherwell College, which has been recognised for its excellent work in retraining former offenders. However, where in the document is there any mention of funding for either further or higher education? There are real options before the new cabinet secretary: decisions are needed, and stakeholders are waiting to take their lead from the minister. Will there be additional funding? If so, how will it be delivered? For example, will the cabinet secretary improve the fee waivers that are on offer, or will she use individual learning accounts?

I was struck by the number of members who commented in similar terms on the failings of the skills strategy. Mary Mulligan said that it is fine as far as it goes. Derek Brownlee commented on the lack of timescales in the document and said that it does not go far enough, is not radical enough and shows a lack of ambition. Liam McArthur spoke about the glaring lack of any meaningful targets. My favourite comment was by Richard Baker, who quoted Elvis to say that we need "a little less conversation" and "a little more action".

What will the cabinet secretary do to help 16 to 18-year-olds who are drifting into a life on benefits? Where are the commitments to education, volunteering, training or employment for young people? Universities get barely a mention, and yet again there is no recognition of anxieties that have been created in our universities by the new funding regime south of the border. Where is the sense of purpose or drive? Presiding Officer, it is sadly lacking.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party 4:33, 12 September 2007

I welcome the opportunity to close this debate on the Government's plans for skills. The Government has set out its strategy—what we want to achieve. How we will do it will come during engagement with all those who are involved with skills.

At the education debate in June, there was a call for the Government to build on the common agenda that clearly exists in Parliament. We were reminded that this is no time to stall on progress—firm decision making rather than more pilot projects or tinkering around the edges was called for. Today we have announced some bold firm decisions on the way ahead—not tinkering around the edges. I am pleased that the strategy has been broadly welcomed by some members from all parties. Iain Gray said that he could not find fault with it, Murdo Fraser gave it a pass and Jeremy Purvis recognised the importance of working with colleges to deliver locally.

We can build a Scotland that is wealthier and fairer only if our people are equipped with the skills, expertise and knowledge for success. The strategy was welcomed across the board at its launch on Monday. We used the consultation that was undertaken previously when drawing it up.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

People made it clear to us that they had had enough consultation on what should happen—they want action, which is why they have broadly welcomed the document.

This Government is building a self-confident and outward-looking Scotland. We want an ambitious nation in which there are opportunities for everyone to benefit and to make positive contributions to Scotland's prosperity. We do not want a Scotland that is just bumbling along: investing in our people's skills and ensuring that skills contribute as much as possible to sustained economic growth is central to that.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

It is entirely fair for the minister to say that investing in our skills is central to building a prosperous Scotland—almost every speaker has said that. Our complaint is that the strategy contains no guarantee of investment of any kind in the skills agenda.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

That is not what I read in the strategy document, and it is not what the people outside Parliament have read in it.

In "Skills for Scotland", we acknowledge the central role of Scotland's colleges in economic development because of the diversity of individuals they serve, the range of opportunities that they provide and their breadth of partnership working. What is the point in building new skills academies—secondary moderns by any other name—when existing school, college and university links are willing to meet the skills challenge?

We recognise the importance to our knowledge economy of a steady supply of workers who are skilled to the highest levels. Reports for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show science and engineering to be among the UK's top skills shortages—that shortage is mirrored in Scotland. A steady flow of graduates and technicians is vital, so that industries in which we punch above our weight can continue to compete favourably. Our life sciences, creative industries, financial services and the energy sector, including renewables, all need smart, skilled Scots.

Scotland must continue to increase technology transfer from our world-class research base into viable products and processes. Skills development is needed here, too. Encouraging technology start-ups and assisting scientists and technologists in developing entrepreneurial and business skills—helping them to create and grow into our large companies of the future—will prove to be an ever-increasing priority.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

In the cabinet secretary's introduction to the strategy, she says:

"Over the coming months we will be organising events and action built around our key tasks".

Will the Government publish a document containing baseline data on areas in which there will be measurable progress that can be identified as delivering what is in the strategy?

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Christina McKelvie and Aileen Campbell pointed out the faults in a target-driven proposal. Ms McKelvie was right to say that targets are the wrong way to go about it. Do members of other parties really believe that voluntary organisations—such as the one in Aberdeen that Brian Adam and I came across, which tries hard to give employability skills to some of our most vulnerable youngsters—should have the funding cut from underneath them if they do not meet targets?

The priority of this Government is not to meet targets but to ensure that every young person has the skills to get into a meaningful job. Lots of money has been wasted in the past on churn, and on getting people get into jobs that are not meaningful to them. We recognise the importance of our knowledge economy for a steady supply of skilled workers for our public services as well as our private ones. Our ambitions for public services demand that we will continue to look to our colleges and universities to provide the next generation of the highest-skilled public sector workers, such as teachers, doctors and lawyers.

However, our strategy recognises that employer demand for skills needs to take place at all levels, and we will work with all those who are trying to achieve that aim: the unions that are committed to supporting the learning of their members, which is highlighted in the document; sector skills councils, which are working to raise the level of skills in their sectors; and employers, who must be more demanding with regard to skills development.

We will continue to challenge the public services to make better use of their employees and to ensure that public services are improved for everyone. We also acknowledge the voluntary sector's contribution in providing skills, which is why we have not been prescriptive about the new body that has been announced today. We are determined to engage in conversation with all those who provide skills advice.

Our strategy also recognises that individuals move into the world of work from various starting points. In Scotland, we are fortunate to have invested heavily over the years in learning and training providers, who go a long way towards acknowledging the variety of needs that must be met. We also have excellent colleges and universities, as well as a strong third sector, community learning and development base, and private training provision. However, we are ambitious to use such assets better. We have outlined our plans to establish a task group to advise on how we can ensure that resources that are allocated for learning outwith institutions support the strategic direction that is set down by Government for community learning and development.

We also believe that the best way in which to ensure long-term employability is to inspire—not compel—children to stay in education or training after the age of 16.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

Not at the moment.

Good options and clear pathways out of school are essential for ensuring continuity and progression in learning and achievement. As I have pointed out already—and as Elizabeth Smith made clear in her speech—even primary 7 schoolchildren are making links with colleges and finding out the importance of their learning to the world of work. The point is that we must address the needs of lower-achieving young people who are at risk of disengagement.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Given that the minister is winding up, will she address a point that was made by almost every member who spoke in the debate, and tell us why the strategy lacks timescales and targets for meeting young people's needs?

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

I have already answered that question. Target-driven approaches have not provided many young people with meaningful employment or courses. If they had succeeded, the member's party might be sitting on the Government benches—which is not the case.

Learning is a powerful good in its own right and a necessary driver for self-development. However, learning and training are powerful enablers for much of what the Government wants to achieve with regard to developing our workforce, increasing demand for skills and increasing productivity. Through learning and skills development, workers, families and communities can prosper and the inequality that so blights Scotland can be reduced.

As a result, this strategy acknowledges that a greater national effort is required—it is a call for action. Although we have set out the strategy, we are not taking a top-down approach towards how it should be implemented. Instead, we are working with all our partners in the skills development and training agenda to ensure that we step up to the mark on skills for Scotland.