International Education

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 11:14 am on 24th April 2008.

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Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat 11:14 am, 24th April 2008

When the Minister for Schools and Skills talked about children in Gambia considering the difference between children in Scotland and Africa, I recalled that, when the former Deputy First Minister Nicol Stephen visited a school in India, the children remarked that the main difference that they saw was that he talked like Shrek. I think that the kids in Gambia are a little more profound than those in that school in India.

The Liberal Democrats disagree with nothing in the minister's speech. However, we are disappointed that the Government will not embrace our constructive addendum on a comprehensive Scottish strategy for languages. The reason that the Government has given for opposing that shows an unfortunate lack of ambition from the SNP. The minister said that there is no need for a strategy because the modern languages outcomes in the curriculum for excellence will suffice. The draft outcomes, which are good, state:

"At early and at first levels, children will be developing generic skills in their first language. These include taking part in conversation, developing listening, reading and writing skills and knowledge about language. All of these are relevant to learning other languages.

An early start to language learning should be a positive, stimulating experience that motivates pupils through exciting contexts and meaningful, accessible content."

That is all to be welcomed, but we want to go much further. An early start should be made in schools, but we want the process to continue through to college, university and our business economy, which should all be part of a co- ordinated approach to language skills to allow us to improve and build on the current situation.

Hugh O'Donnell talked about the long-term decline in the number of presentations for language qualifications in Scotland under many Governments. That highlights the need for reforms. We now have a more complex world economic environment and a more multicultural Scotland, as Des McNulty and Frank McAveety highlighted. Those aspects can potentially benefit Scotland, but our approach should be co-ordinated. We hope that the Government does not have a closed mind and will consider our proposals further.

When I was in India two years ago, I met representatives of chambers of commerce who have no doubt that they want an economy that is more open, just, and transparent than China's, and larger. They see skills in English as critical. They respect our education system and our approach to justice, the rule of law and human rights. They wish their economy to be the largest part of the world economy, and English is a critical part of that. We must consider Scotland's role in a much bigger world trading environment and the languages that our young people and businesses can exploit.

The Minister for Schools and Skills said nothing about China. When I saw the subject of the debate, I thought that it was on the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning's visit to China during the Easter recess. I am disappointed that we have not had a chance to debate that visit, its consequences and our relationship with China, which is of huge significance to Scotland. I thought that the timing of the visit was wrong.

Pupils in Scotland do not only want to learn about other countries; they want to get to know people from other countries and understand their cultures and political systems. Projects such as the outstanding international programme in Peebles high school in my constituency are involved with just that issue—getting to know and understand other cultures. We cannot separate politics from learning about other countries, so human rights and civil liberties issues are relevant. The actions of Government ministers in meeting other officials—even when those ministers raise human rights issues—and the timing of visits at a time of international concern are relevant issues. Young people are receptive to such issues. So whether we talk about views on the war in Iraq or ministers' visits at a time of concern about human rights abuses against citizens in Tibet, those are relevant issues.

The people of Tibet are citizens of the world. Liz Smith and Iain Smith rightly commented that Scots have always been citizens of the world, and a Government motion today will not make that any more or less the case. For three years, I have chaired the launch of the Peebles high school international programme for S4 pupils in the Scottish Parliament, together with the consular corps in Edinburgh. The pupils set the agenda on how they want to understand, work with and get to know young people from other countries. They are at the centre of best practice in international studying.

The ability to communicate and understand is universal. If we do not take a more co-ordinated and better approach to developing that ability, we will fall back, which is not the best way of giving our young people the opportunities in the world environment that we all want them to have.