Skills Strategy

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 28th January 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:15 pm, 28th January 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-5619, in the name of Keith Brown, on the skills strategy.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 2:56 pm, 28th January 2010

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate on the skills strategy for Scotland, on the very day that the skills and strategy of a young Scot have meant that we have someone in the final of the Australian open. Congratulations to Andy Murray.

Today's debate comes at an important time in Scotland's transition from the economic downturn of the past 18 months to what we all hope will be a strong and sustained recovery. As we seek to accelerate Scotland's recovery and to take the fullest possible advantage of new opportunities as they emerge, it is critical that our skills and training support is substantial, sustainable and flexible.

Even as we see some positive signs, the reality for many Scots firms is one of continuing challenges in sustaining their business. The reality for many Scots is one of on-going job insecurity. The reality for many of our young people is one of uncertainty about their future prospects. That is why none of us can afford to be slow to react as we move forward into this critical year for our recovery. We must work together to deliver support quickly and effectively, where it is needed most and to those who most need it.

The Government is determined to ensure that we have in place appropriate and effective training and educational provision to take advantage of new opportunities as they emerge. That is why we are prioritising skills investment in the draft budget, with investment of more than £2 billion in our colleges, universities and national training programmes. We have already seen the difference that a flexible approach to skills investment can make in tough economic times. Through our ScotAction programme, we have directed some £145 million to support training for work, training in work and training from work to work. We have expanded the modern apprenticeship programme, making available an extra £16 million to create an additional 7,800 opportunities in 2009-10—on top of the 10,700 that were already in place—taking the number of new opportunities to the extremely ambitious level of 18,500. Funding to support those new places has been allocated in the draft budget, to ensure that those who started their training in 2009-10 will be able to continue in 2010-11.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

The minister is aware that a number of apprenticeships have had to come to an end, especially in the construction industry; I think that the figure is about 900. There now seem to be some green shoots of recovery in the construction industry. How is the Government working with the industry to see whether many apprenticeships can be started up again?

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

We work closely with ConstructionSkills, which is a strong sector skills council, and regularly meet employers in the industry, who have a good track record on apprenticeships. In addition, we realise that a number of small construction companies may not have the same capacity as larger companies to access apprenticeships, or even to be aware of them and to find out where they are. We have produced a short, direct, simple leaflet for such employers, to ensure that they are able to access apprenticeships. The member will be aware of this morning's very positive news that there is a more positive outlook among construction employers in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. We are doing what we can in that regard, although there is obviously more to be done.

We have expanded the modern apprenticeship programme, making available 7,800 opportunities in addition to the 10,700. Next year we hope to be even more ambitious, by offering a flexible range of training opportunities to accelerate the recovery.

A key priority group for the Government, the Parliament and the country is, of course, our young people. Too often in previous recessions, young people have suffered most and the effects have continued for them while the rest of society has moved on. Scotland's young people deserve better. We are determined not to repeat that past mistake.

The 16+ learning choices model is our guarantee of an offer of a place in learning to every young person who wants it. Local partnerships, led by local authorities, are working together to ensure that the range of opportunities that is available to young people meets their needs and supports them into further learning and employment.

This year's school leaver destinations return, which was published in November, told a much better story than we might have feared during the recession, with an increase in the proportion of young people going into further and higher education and training. School staying-on rates are also significantly higher than in previous years, which is perhaps not surprising during a recession. However, as we would expect, the proportion of young people going into employment has fallen. This is not the time to take our foot off the gas. If we want to secure a sustainable economic recovery for the benefit of everyone in Scotland, we must provide the right support where it is needed.

There is no question but that we need to be prepared for the summer of 2010, given that more young people will be coming out of school and college into a labour market that is likely to remain tight. We must all be prepared to support those young people into further learning, training and employment. Our young people must have a flexible range of options in the year ahead, and continuing support to sustain their learning choice. The draft budget puts in place the funding to provide that, and we must all get behind the efforts that are being made to deliver those options.

The Government has been very impressed by the way in which colleges have responded flexibly to increased demands. That remains a priority in the year ahead. Skills Development Scotland's continuing training budget has been protected. When four organisations come together, it is natural that there will be some efficiency savings and those are now being delivered. However, as we have always said, front-line services will be maintained. SDS is well placed to respond flexibly to emerging demand. If the evidence shows that another year of focusing on providing high numbers of modern apprenticeship starts is key to accelerating recovery—we believe that it is—the draft budget provides for that.

Using skills to support growth is not all about money. It is equally important to provide the right support to those who need it most and to ensure that Government and its partners work together to deliver that support as effectively as possible.

As I said, we must be prepared for the summer of 2010. More young people will be coming out of school and college on to the labour market, which—according to every estimate that we have heard so far—is likely to remain very tight for the foreseeable future. We must be prepared to support those young people into further learning, training and employment.

Since coming to power, the Government has had a single purpose: we want to create a more successful country, in which everyone shares the benefits of sustainable economic growth. In the economic climate in which we have found ourselves, the need to focus on doing all that we can to support the economy has never been more important. We understand that skills are a critical element to economic growth in a country such as Scotland. There is a great deal to be said for the work that the former Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning did on skills utilisation, which has now been taken over by the current cabinet secretary. That work aims to ensure that we get competitive benefits from the skills that we have in our workforce.

For existing businesses to be more successful, we need a large pool of individuals with both the skill set and the mindset to drive innovation and to deliver greater profitability. To attract new investment to Scotland we need a highly skilled, adaptable workforce that can contribute to the success of businesses that choose to invest here. In a public sector that faces huge challenges, we need individuals who can drive up public service productivity to unprecedented levels. It is difficult to anticipate properly the skills that any economy will need in the future, but if we can get it right, the competitive benefits—the advantage over competitors—can be huge.

There is no question but that the Government's approach to skills development and delivery has been tested to the limits in the past year. We are in an unprecedented recession, just narrowly coming out of it in the past few days—at least, that is what the data suggest. Having a single skills agency managing a range of programmes from within a single budget has allowed us to act quickly in response to a rapidly changing environment. Certainly, people who have been involved in the area for a long time tell us that focus on and scrutiny of training and careers opportunities are far greater than they were in the past, as a result of a single agency being in charge.

As I said, our colleges have been hugely responsive to an unprecedented surge in demand and we have acted quickly to support them. We have sustained a positive story on school leaver destinations, and the rate of increase in unemployment has decelerated much more quickly than might been have anticipated a year ago.

However, this is not the time to take our foot off the gas. If we want to secure a sustainable recovery for the benefit of everybody in Scotland, we must provide the right support where and when it is needed. In years to come, I want to be able to look back on how we worked collectively to respond to the recession and I want to be able to take pride in the success of our approach. A flexible approach to skills and training was right before the recession and has definitely been right during the recession. I am convinced that it will be right as we seek to accelerate recovery. I commend the motion to the Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of businesses and employees are critical elements of a successful skills strategy in helping tackle the challenges of the recession and the recovery and believes that the Scottish Government must maintain its focus on developing practical initiatives that help people and businesses with training for work, training in work and training from work to work.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 3:06 pm, 28th January 2010

I welcome this opportunity to debate skills again in the Parliament. The Scottish National Party's skills strategy has been rejected twice by the Parliament, but skills should be a priority for the Government. From what I heard from the minister, it seems that a welcome change is blowing through the corridors of power upstairs.

In the amendment in my name, I ask the Scottish Government to

"bring forward early publication of a refreshed skills strategy that takes account of the current economic climate and is backed by the resources necessary to provide appropriate places on Training for Work and Get Ready for Work programmes and the wide range of modern apprentice schemes."

Who could argue against that? Do not Scotland's wealth as a nation and our ability to create a more inclusive society depend solely on productivity and employment? I am pleased that the SNP now realises that skills are essential to both. We simply want to know what the new strategy is and how much more money will be invested in skills. I hope that the minister will tell us that when he sums up, but perhaps we will have to wait until next week.

Recent history shows that support for certain modern apprenticeships was cut in April 2008, when funding for service sector candidates over the age of 19 was withdrawn. Last year in the budget negotiations, Labour pushed through 7,800 additional modern apprentice places, at a cost of £16 million. There has been welcome selective easing of the artificial age barrier, but that is not enough. A stop-and-go funding environment, which is announced in a drip-feed manner, leaves employers and training providers unable to budget and creates huge uncertainty.

Despite the recent welcome fall in unemployment, now is the time to increase and not cut back help. We need to ensure that our young people do not suffer the scarring effects of long-term unemployment—I welcome the minister's words on that score. That is why in this year's budget negotiations Labour has again sought extra resources, to train people who do not have the necessary skills to enter the job market and to add to the skills of people who are working.

Public funding needs to be prioritised towards employability, basic skills and people who face severe disadvantages in the labour market. Not all young people will have the qualifications for a modern apprentice place. Programmes such as training for work need to be extended, to help to bridge the gap that exists, especially in our most deprived areas. The statistics show that in 2008 nearly 25 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds in the 15 per cent most deprived areas were not in employment, education or training.

Now is the time to increase help, as the economy recovers. We need to provide support to businesses that give young people a job, apprenticeship or internship. We must not make things more difficult or take away such opportunities. There must be tailored training for a wide range of sectors, to help people to get a foot on to the career ladder and to ensure that employers' demands can be met. Employers need to be central to the skills agenda and systems should be aligned to labour market needs. Businesses throughout Scotland consistently say that they are never properly engaged in education reform. Indeed, according to the Confederation of British Industry, the development of employability should be a core function of education.

I accept that it can be easier to engage with large employers. However, articulating training needs might not be the top priority for many small and medium-sized enterprises, which are concentrating on running their businesses. Workplace training providers should be able to go in and create something suitable for the individual business. It should be a priority to find out what employers need and address specific skills shortages that they can identify.

We must accept that Scotland faces demographic changes that will have an impact on its labour market. More than 20 per cent of the working-age population are aged 16 to 25, compared with 29 per cent who are aged 50 to 64. We need to motivate individuals to make use of the enhanced work and life opportunities that lifelong learning can bring them. Having the confidence and skills to participate and succeed has its own rewards.

I had an informative visit to Skills Development Scotland last week to hear how its corporate plan is developing. Last year, the agency had a budget of more than £203 million and a staff of 1,400. Those are significant resources that should create a revitalised, fit-for-purpose, skills and learning provision, but I say to the minister that, as SDS predicts that there will be a bulge in the number of people seeking jobs and training this summer, now is not the time to cut its financial resources. Indeed, we heard some of that argument at First Minister's questions. I hope that the First Minister can persuade the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth to reverse the proposed cut as he puts the finishing touches to his budget proposal before next week's stage 3 budget debate, so that SDS can meet the extra challenges that it knows it will face.

SDS has put together its corporate plan, and the Labour Party agrees with much of it. I particularly concur with its priority groups: young people aged 12 to 19, particularly those who are in need of more choices and chances, many of whom live in our most deprived communities; adults aged over 20 who need new skills to find work; and adults aged over 20 who are in work but need to increase their skills.

I welcome the £1,000 that the Scottish Government is offering companies to take on a new apprentice. However, the scheme is limited to 4,000 places and, to qualify for the cash, the apprentice must be employed between 11 January and 26 March this year. If the take-up is not achieved in that small timeframe, surely the scheme can be extended.

On Monday, my colleague Richard Baker and I visited Macphie of Glenbervie, an independent food ingredients manufacturer that employs 300 people over two sites—250 at its main plant near Stonehaven and another 50 at a plant in Uddingston that was recently taken over. At Macphie, training and personal development are central to the company ethos. All employees are tested to see what type of activity suits their personality and capability. That attention to detail has achieved some terrific results. Among the senior management team are now people who left school with no qualifications but, through personal development and encouragement from the company, have taken on training to improve their skill levels and job opportunities.

It is clear to see that the individual and the company both benefit from that attention to training detail. Many other companies throughout Scotland should follow that example. The Macphie system works. When it took over the Uddingston plant, staff turnover was 90 per cent—I had to look at the figure twice because I did not believe it, but it was 90 per cent—and none of the production staff had any formal qualifications. Now, staff turnover is down to less than 1 per cent and all the staff who work there have achieved some form of Scottish vocational qualification. It is a much happier place to work, and Macphie has shown that, if we put the investment in, we get the return back.

In my constituency, the insurance firm Aviva is establishing links with local schools and the Kirkintilloch campus of Cumbernauld College to develop training opportunities to encourage youngsters into the insurance industry, which is an important part of the financial services sector. Management at Aviva told me that, to start with, it was a bit of a struggle to get their feet in the doors of local schools and the local college, but I am happy to say that that has now been sorted out.

I could go on, as there is plenty more to say, but by now members should have got the picture that the skills agenda needs to be prioritised. We do not need complex skills policies, initiatives and institutions and neither do we want skills to be a political football. We cannot have a top-down approach. We will work with the Scottish Government but a commonsense approach must be taken. It is important for Scotland's future to keep skills at the top of the agenda and it is important that we keep investing in training.

I move amendment S3M-5619.2, to insert at end:

"and, to that end, calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward early publication of a refreshed Skills Strategy that takes account of the current economic climate and is backed by the resources necessary to provide appropriate places on Training for Work and Get Ready for Work programmes and the wide range of modern apprentice schemes."

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative 3:14 pm, 28th January 2010

There can be no doubt about the importance of a skills strategy to the development of a more successful economy and more meaningful and fulfilling opportunities in the education system. It is good to hear that the Scottish Government has provided more assurances on the skills strategy than it did when the original version was overwhelmingly rejected by the Parliament for the simple reason that it did not provide a coherent policy across all sectors.

I listened carefully to the minister's opening remarks and I hope that I can press him to deal with a bit more of the detail, which relates, as far as we are concerned, to two fundamental issues. I hope that we can elicit an assurance in the minister's summing up that the Government will address those issues as a matter of urgency.

Two weeks ago, we had a very good debate on literacy. It would not be appropriate to go over all aspects of that debate again, much as I would like to, but I reiterate our strong belief that literacy and numeracy are the blocks upon which all else must be built. The sizeable amount of money that Scottish businesses have to spend in their training budgets on remedial work rather than on new skills is evidence of how serious the problem is. The Parliament is well aware of our views about the need for more rigorous testing in primary schools, which have been reinforced in the past 24 hours by concerns among primary teachers. I am sure that the Scottish Government has the best interests of our pupils at heart when it comes to the curriculum for excellence, but we simply cannot proceed much further until we have demonstrated unequivocally—on a basis that is both understood and accepted by employers—that standards of literacy and numeracy are improving. If we can get the balance right between greater rigour in the school exam system and the need to create imaginative and responsible citizens, which is the vision of the curriculum for excellence, we will have a far better chance of fulfilling a successful skills strategy.

However, far more than that is required. If the main appeal of the curriculum for excellence is its desire to tailor the educational experience more towards the needs of individual pupils, by definition we must allow much greater flexibility within the education system. For me, that means challenging the status quo of the comprehensive system beyond the middle years of secondary school—perhaps even beyond secondary 2—since it is clearly not working for many pupils in the last two or three years of their schooling. Professor Howie tried that in 1992 and was shot down for his unorthodox views. He has been proved right, big time, and I have no doubt that we need to make that change now.

Will the cabinet secretary agree at least to examine the case for allowing pupils to engage in formal vocational training while they are still at school—that already happens in several other European countries—and for allowing pupils to leave school at an earlier age if they and their teachers agree that the pursuit of a purely academic curriculum is neither appropriate nor relevant to their best interests? One of the worst things that we can do is to force youngsters to stay on at school in academic classes in which they have little focus and on which, frankly, they waste valuable time when they could be learning a trade or a craft—that should never be seen as somehow inferior to an academic education. It is time to acknowledge fully that far more youngsters would be able to get much more meaningful focus if they could harness their talents outside the academic classroom. Such an approach works tremendously well in many European countries and it would go a long way towards solving the problem of some disengaged youngsters in our society.

Another extremely important aspect of the debate, which forms the second part of our amendment, is the need to ensure that skills training is based far more on the needs of employers than on what can be provided through different training institutions. My colleague Gavin Brown will outline the main details of our thinking on that matter, which has been reinforced by much of the powerful evidence that was submitted to the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee.

It is essential that the Scottish Government accepts that it needs to rethink its policy as quickly as possible. I say that not only because of what the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee was told by experts in the field, but because of the results of good practice elsewhere. Just before Christmas, my colleague Murdo Fraser and I spent a day in York hearing about the progress that had been made by the skills academies in England for exactly the same reason: they had ensured that skills training was demand led. Each academy has a different business model, and they are drawn up according to employers' needs in the different industrial sectors. Each academy also has an employer-led board, and approval of training providers is based on how well they can deliver the training needs of local employers. The structure was very impressive in terms of the quality of training that was provided and the number of students who went on to full-time jobs in a range of industries, and given the fact that skills academies are financially self-sustaining within four years.

The Scottish Conservatives firmly believe that we need to develop a more consistent and coherent strategy on demand-led skills training. We ask the Government to pay considerable attention to that area.

Let me just summarise our position. First, if the overriding objective is to provide a workforce that is fit for the challenges of the 21st century and which allows Scotland to develop her full economic potential such that she can compete successfully in the international community, we must not ignore the concerns that are raised by about one third of employers who say that their school leavers are poorly prepared for work. Secondly, we need to champion vocational training and provide the flexibility that will allow all pupils—not just some—to pursue their aspirations. The Scottish colleges have made huge progress on that, but much more needs to be done to help our youngsters to become career focused and to take an active part in planning their educational futures without the fear of any stigma being attached to them. Thirdly, we must ensure that we have a coherent national framework that involves all levels of training, with neither too much nor too little focus on any one part of the education sector. The national strategy must meet the demands of everyone, especially the employers who, at the end of the day, are the means by which the Scottish working population can find jobs and develop their skills.

I move amendment S3M-5619.1, to insert at end:

"; believes that pupils in secondary schools who wish to do so should have the opportunity to pursue formal vocational training, and calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that the system is more demand-led and that publicly funded training matches far more closely the needs of employers."

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 3:21 pm, 28th January 2010

Like everyone else, I welcome the more encouraging economic news of the past fortnight, but Scotland is still in tough economic times. Companies are still getting into trouble and people are still losing their jobs. For many, 2010 will be a year of struggle, whether because they face the financial burdens of unemployment or because they must deal with the emotional stresses that that brings. There is no doubt that the next few years will be challenging. That is why we need to fight back with an upskilled workforce in what is a very competitive world.

We need to work to maximise and improve the skills of Scotland's workforce so that the economy can not only recover but support sustainable growth in the future. I welcome the minister's response to my intervention on the issue of apprenticeships in the construction industry. It is essential that the Government engages with employers and works with key industries, such as construction, to ensure that they work in partnership going forward. There has never been a more important time to invest in skills. It is crucial that employers continue to invest in apprenticeships and in other ways of upskilling the workforce. We need proper partnerships among schools, colleges, employers and Government.

Ideally, we also need a partnership in the Parliament on the issue of skills. That is why it is rather worrying that the Scottish Government's skills strategy has never been approved by the Parliament. When the strategy was introduced in September 2007, it was voted down as inadequate, because it had no targets or timescales and not very much by way of measures of success. It is seriously worrying, when faced with the greatest economic recession in a generation, that we do not have a nationally agreed skills strategy, even though many of the minister's announcements today, such as on ScotAction, are to be welcomed.

We need skills from across the board, from basic literacy to degree-level education and national qualifications. Basic literacy and numeracy skills are essential to an effective and functioning workforce and a successful economy. However, the recent literacy commission report suggests that almost 1 million adults in Scotland have inadequate literacy skills. For that reason, we welcome efforts to tackle the problem through the curriculum for excellence, through testing and through community education for those who slipped through at school level.

We know that young people have been hit hardest by the shrinking jobs market. Graduates and school leavers are unable to find jobs and young people are generally the first to be made redundant from companies, which often take a last-in-first-out approach. Our young people are bearing too much of the burden of the recession. Experts who have examined the effects of the previous recession have noted that it created an enduring legacy of long-term unemployment for many people.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Given what Margaret Smith has said about young people, does she welcome the fact that all £28.1 million of the consequential funding was allocated to colleges on the basis that they would target young people in the most affected areas of the economy? Surely that must be a good thing.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

That is spooky, because I was about to welcome that point later in my speech.

I also welcome the minister's comments about ensuring that we do not have another lost generation of young people at this crucial time. However, it is hugely worrying that the number of young people claiming jobseekers allowance in Scotland has increased by 45 per cent in the past year. We all agree that they should be a key focus of the work that we should be doing on skills.

The minister rightly spoke about the flexibility that Scotland's colleges have shown, but we know that record numbers of students are being turned away from colleges due, to some extent, to a lack of funding. Carnegie College turned away 904 students in 2009 because courses were full, which represents an increase of nearly 80 per cent on the 2008 figure. At Stevenson College Edinburgh, 1,326 students failed to gain a place in 2009, which compares with a figure of 323 for 2008. Oatridge College, which had never previously refused admission to applicants, was forced to turn away 300 people following a 74 per cent increase in applications.

That is why, as part of this year's budget process, we have called on the Scottish Government to expand the number of college places, which would be a direct way of boosting skills in sectors of the economy in which we know that there are skills gaps. Whether in engineering, green industries or social care, giving people the skills and education that they need to succeed should be a positive legacy from the recession. That is why we want to see a significant increase in the number of college places throughout Scotland. We also want investment to be distributed fairly across the country, in rural and urban areas alike.

In June last year, the Government announced a welcome £16.1 million for extra college places, but the allocation focused on colleges in the central belt, where there were high levels of youth unemployment. The Government needs to note that there are pockets of unemployment throughout Scotland. For example, in October 2009, jobseekers allowance data showed that in Glasgow, which received funding, the Easterhouse area had a claimant count rate of 8.2 per cent. In Dumfries and Galloway, which did not receive funding, the area of Stranraer north had a claimant count rate of 8.8 per cent, and in Highland, which did not receive funding either, the area of Merkinch had a claimant count rate of 8.7 per cent. I could have filled my five or six minutes with the numerous anomalies to which the Government's approach has given rise. I strongly urge the minister to take a different approach if there is to be an expansion in the number of college places in future, which is what we would like to happen.

We continue to be sceptical about the value of Skills Development Scotland, a quango that cost £16 million to set up. We would prefer resources to be diverted into front-line skills services. We also have concerns about the fact that in 2008, the Government removed specific funding for skills for work courses in schools and colleges and the school-college partnership programme by wrapping them up in the concordat. It is essential that local authorities continue to provide such services, but we are all well aware of the cuts that are coming to a council near us. We must ensure that people do not suffer as a result of a postcode lottery, whereby some councils see such programmes as priorities whereas others do not. Such services should be available to young people throughout Scotland, regardless of where they live.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

Margaret Smith said that that money was removed and wrapped up in local government funding. It was not removed, but it was wrapped up in local government funding. That is consistent with our approach—which I think is also the approach of the Liberal Democrats—of giving local authorities the maximum amount of discretion. That money was not removed; it is still there.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I think that I said that the Government removed specific funding by wrapping it up in local authority funding. I am concerned that the Government keeps a watching brief to ensure that the funding is used for those purposes, because if it is not, the Government will have to address the consequences further down the line.

Graduates have been finding it increasingly difficult to find employment. I must declare an interest as a mother of four university students, two of whom will graduate in the summer. The economic situation that they will face when they come out of university is very different from the one that prevailed when they went in. I share the concerns of parents around the country who worry that after four years' hard work, their children might not end up with a job of any description.

We have recently learned that Scottish Enterprise is to scrap the graduates for business scheme, the successful internship scheme that was awarded a new three-year contract worth £1 million only last year. Internships for around 250 graduates a year have been arranged through the scheme, two thirds of whom have ended up being employed by the firms involved.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

You should be finishing now, Ms Smith.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

What assurances can the minister give us about how graduate employment will be progressed in the wake of the demise of that fund?

Leigh Clifford, the chairman of Qantas Airways, said:

"Success is down to perseverance, ability, skills and experience, but it is also about being given an opportunity."

We must ensure that all individuals in Scotland, particularly our young people, are given such opportunities.

I move amendment S3M-5619.3, to leave out from "believes" to end and insert:

"regrets the Scottish Government's failure to bring forward a revised Skills Strategy for debate, as was called for by the Parliament in September 2007; further regrets the ongoing confusion, bureaucracy and expense that has been caused by the establishment of the multi-million pound quango, Skills Development Scotland; notes the Scottish Government's removal of specific funding for Skills for Work courses and school-college partnerships and the uncertainty over the future funding of the Determined to Succeed programme; recognises the valuable role of colleges in boosting skills and supporting lifelong learning, education and training, and notes the pressures facing colleges across Scotland due to an increased demand for places."

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party 3:29 pm, 28th January 2010

So far, there has been a remarkable degree of accord across the chamber. I know that there is always consensus and never a raised voice, a gibe tossed from bench to bench, a cross word or a sly dig here, but this debate has had more "Hail fellow well met" comments than most—except Margaret Smith's amendment, of course, although her speech was a bit more positive. I am sure that she meant what she said in the best, most constructive and friendliest of manners.

It is important to recognise the efforts that everyone has made in trying to close the skills gap in our economy, including those of previous devolved Administrations and Administrations before devolution across what was once a great divide in the political spectrum. We should also note John Park's efforts in keeping his personal favourite cause of apprenticeships—which is also one of my favourite causes—to the forefront of political debate in Scotland. I say well done to him for that. He and I may disagree on details, but we agree on other things. I am sure that he agrees that we should do what we can to encourage proper on-the-job training, proper apprenticeships and people having a thorough grounding in the techniques of trades. I am also sure that he will be only too pleased to welcome the efforts that the Scottish Government has made over the past couple of years and the effects of those endeavours.

Members may come to the issue from different angles, but we all have essentially the same purpose in mind: to upskill the Scottish workforce to enable people to play an active part in wealth creation—both private and social wealth—in Scotland; to be competitive in the employment market; to help to build social capital; and to create social mobility in our society. The path of sustainable economic development has not been easy to follow recently, with the chill winds of recession blowing from the south, but it is the central focus of the Scottish Government, and we have seen delivery on that since the election in 2007.

As Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Fiona Hyslop announced and delivered increased funding for the Scottish union learning fund only months into government. That is another cause of mine: John Park and I agree on its importance. That increase in funding has been maintained, and the Government's partnership in learning with the unions has continued to develop. People are learning while in work to improve themselves and their prospects, and thus improve the society in which they live. That is important to me. I should declare an interest: I was a training officer who supported people in work to gain qualifications. The unions do excellent work on that fund and the Government does excellent work in supporting it. Scotland's Government's support for the unions is providing learning opportunities to union members.

The Scottish union learning annual report for 2008-09 says:

"Through this funding, trade unions are putting sustainable learning infrastructures into place, ultimately making a difference in the lifelong chances of their members."

The fund was established in 2000 and has delivered a legacy that will continue to benefit Scotland for many years to come. Funding was increased in 2008, which the annual report says allowed

"a significant increase in activity from previous rounds."

The report states:

"In the first year of SULF 7, there were 1379 individuals who accessed learning opportunities ... 787 Individual Learning Accounts were taken up and 27 new learning agreements were signed with employers."

The trade unions do a great job in supporting their members' learning, and they should be praised for that, but the Scottish Government should also be praised, as it does a great job in supporting the unions to support their members' learning. Ministers should be specially praised for that.

It was also Fiona Hyslop who moved quickly to set up ScotAction when the need for it became clear. Apprenticeships were supported, apprentices were sponsored in the workplace, and resources were provided to keep as many apprentices in post as possible.

Of course, there is no way to deliver apprentices if there are no employers who are able to take them on. That is why the recession has been so bad for apprenticeships and why we must do what we can to ensure that Scotland is out of recession and building again. It is also why we could have done with an additional acceleration in capital spending, which Iain Gray asked for, and why the small business bonus was important for apprenticeships, because it allowed small businesses to survive and gave them the chance to thrive and take on apprentices.

The skills debate and the provision of skills do not exist in isolation. Without economic growth, we will not have businesses to employ apprentices, never mind skilled workers, and without available and circulating money in the economy, there will be no way for the sole trader—the plumber, joiner or electrician—to survive. On people surviving, I want to mention information that was sent to all members from Carers Scotland and the Princess Royal Trust for Carers on the employment and training challenges for carers, especially young carers in the 16-plus group. In summing up, will the minister give me an assurance that the skills strategy will take into account the challenges experienced by young carers and the carers network across Lanarkshire?

As I said, the debate about skills and their provision does not exist in isolation. We cannot keep pumping borrowed money into the economy—it has to be paid back some time—but now is the time for boosting public capital expenditure. The skills gaps are changing and training provision must change with them. Technology and science are prime examples of subjects in which postgraduate qualifications will be necessary for many employment opportunities, but sub-degree qualifications will be just as important for others. The nature of the beast is changing.

Scotland needs flexibility in our training providers, training delivery channels and employers to deliver skills training for the future. We need the ability to change to match the circumstances that Scotland finds herself in and the political will to make that happen. I believe that we have general agreement on that among the parties. I am happy to support the motion in Keith Brown's name.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour 3:35 pm, 28th January 2010

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. My first speech in the Parliament way back in May 2007 was on skills, and I have taken a great interest in the issue since. The economy was a different beast back in 2007, but skills are just as important now as they were then, and probably even more so. It is a matter of regret that the Parliament has yet to unite around a skills strategy, although I recognise that progress has been made since the initial debate in 2007. Primarily through the budget process, but also in other ways, we have found issues on which the Parliament can unite and make progress.

Last year's budget gave us an opportunity to consider closely the challenges, particularly on apprenticeships. I was pleased that the apprenticeship scheme numbers were increased from 7,800 to 18,500. I hope that the delivery of that will come to fruition this year, and that we will achieve a real difference not only in the figures, but for the individuals who will benefit in the next two or three years as they complete their training. The guarantee for redundant apprentices was an excellent proposal from the Labour Party—of course I would say that—and will help to deal with the redundant apprentice figures. Many ideas came out of the apprenticeship summit, so the Government's proposals will be relevant to employers. If we do not deal with redundant apprentices, and those who have had one or two years' training fall out of the system, their years of training, the public funding and that employer time will have gone to waste. In the current times, it is important that the Government and Parliament unite around measures to support redundant apprentices.

I attended the apprenticeship summit, which was excellent. I suggest to Keith Brown that the Government should consider holding the event annually, and that it perhaps could be widened so that it covers not only apprenticeships but skills and training issues more widely. Many good ideas came out of the summit, and there was a lot of collaboration between public and private sector organisations and between employers of different sizes.

There were several proposals that the Parliament could implement. One suggestion that the Government has not yet taken up but which it might want to consider for the future delivery of apprenticeship places was about the structure of apprenticeships, specifically the challenges that some industries face in getting school leavers into apprenticeships. For example, training in care, management or logistics is probably more suited to older workers or workers who are already in employment and who are seeking to retrain and upskill. There has been movement on that, but we need further movement and examination. The individual sector skills councils and the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils have done work on that and have identified areas in which there could be movement and on which they would be prepared to work with the Scottish Government to try to find a solution.

We need to do that because, although in the current climate it is important that we support young people who come out of school and give them every opportunity to undertake an apprenticeship, the other reality, which David Whitton spoke about, is that a great number of people are in work but need to upskill and retrain to take the jobs of the future. About 60 or 70 per cent of people who are in work now will be in work in 20 years. We are kidding ourselves if we think that the private sector can take on that challenge on its own and that it will upskill and retrain people so that they can go into new employment. There is a huge role for the Scottish Government and the public sector more generally to ensure that people who find themselves in those circumstances are given the opportunity to undertake adult apprenticeships. Flexibility would certainly help the system.

Elizabeth Smith's amendment raises the important issue of vocational training. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report that was produced in 2007, which we debated in the Parliament, identified that Scotland has many comparative strengths in education, but that one of our weaknesses is in vocational opportunities for pupils in secondary 3 and up, that is, 14, 15 and 16-year-olds. We need to consider that. We must also consider the advice and guidance that is given to young people when they are making major decisions that will impact on the rest of their working lives.

Recently, I met a young female—26 or 27 years old—who was in the final year of her Scottish Gas apprenticeship. She told me that, ever since she was 14 or 15 years old, she had wanted to go into an apprenticeship, but because she was female and was not from the sort of background from which people traditionally go into a technical or industrial job, she was pushed into higher education, which she did not want to go into. When she came out of higher education, she found herself working in a Scottish Gas call centre, as her degree was pretty worthless for what she wanted to do. Eventually, she got to where she wanted to be, but she is having to pay off debts. If she had been given better guidance and support, and if it had been recognised that young women can go down the same routes as young men, she would now be three or four years further down her career path, and would be in a far better situation.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

We are aware that the preconceptions about apprenticeships that exist, to an extent, among women and employers have to be challenged. We and Skills Development Scotland are responding to a recent suggestion by the construction industry that we should do something about that. Future campaigns will try to tackle that preconception.

On the question of vocational teaching in schools, will the member acknowledge that that is happening in many schools throughout Scotland, especially with regard to motor vehicle repairs and hairdressing and the associated business skills? I take the member's point that we might need to move forward on a more structured basis.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour

The challenge has existed for a number of years, and I do not think that there is any disagreement about the fact that not only Government but employers, educationalists and others must tackle it. However, there is an issue around occupational segregation, as there is no minimum wage protection in the first year of apprenticeships and many women who go into traditional roles in care and hairdressing, for example, end up being paid £40 or £50 a week, which makes ending their apprenticeship early and going into another job an attractive option. The drop-out rates have been pretty good in Scotland, but not so good in the United Kingdom as a whole.

In supporting the fresh skills strategy, we should debate the issues more widely, because the economic situation has changed. I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

Before I call Christopher Harvie, I remind members that their BlackBerrys should not be switched on.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party 3:42 pm, 28th January 2010

Anyone who has ever seen George Bernard Shaw's play "Man and Superman" will remember the dialogue between Jack Tanner—that Don Juan figure—and his chauffeur, Henry Straker. Tanner asks Henry, "Where did you go to school?", and Henry says, "Holborn polytechnic." Tanner turns to his companion and says, "Would you ever have spoken that way of Balliol college? Holborn polytechnic means something." We have to put over that point strongly, as John Park has just impressively done, to back up the much welcomed measures that the minister has outlined.

I speak with the brooding figure of Adam Smith and the mass of Adam Smith College behind me in my part of Fife. I realise that Adam Smith College is the key to developing huge wind power arrays in the Forth estuary, which could generate up to 4.7GW of power. Securing that supply depends on our sending out the Henry Strakers who will get the machinery working that will deliver the power. We have done that before; we did it in relation to North Sea oil. Alas, many of the people who were involved in that sector have been outsourced and placed offshore throughout the world. One thing that we have to do in the immediate future is bring those people back to be mentors to the young workers who are moving into renewable energy, where fantastic fundamental research is going on. When the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee went up to see what was happening in the area around Stromness and Scrabster, next to that enormous and ferocious natural force the Pentland Firth, we found amazing research going on. We require people who will transform that research into prototype production.

That was well summed up by an old Glasgow friend of mine, who said that what we had on the Clyde were wee men in overalls with a file in one pocket and a micrometer in the other who, if we put them next to a lump of metal for long enough, would build an engine. We require that combination of skill, determination and the best technical knowledge that we have. Unfortunately, the deindustrialisation of our society has led that to break down. I was talking to a friend of mine who was a lecturer at Motherwell College in the 1970s. Then, there were 170 mechanical engineering lecturers, but because of the end of steel production at Ravenscraig that number has shrunk by practically 90 per cent today.

Remember this: when it comes to training apprentices, even in a sophisticated system such as the one in Denmark, which members of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee saw, or the one in Germany, which I experienced in Baden-Württemberg—I am acquainted with people in the social democrat movement there—75 per cent of the instruction is carried out in firms' workshops and special training academies. In Germany, notionally, 50 per cent of the instruction should happen in a technical school and 50 per cent should happen at work, but in fact 25 per cent is done in technical schools and 75 per cent is done in the technical academies of, say, Daimler, Voith and Siemens.

We require to give people a much greater degree of such experience. That will be tricky initially, because we are building up the institutions that will do that, which will take time. How do we do that? I refer to my past as an apprentice in multimedia technology at the Open University, which, of course, was founded by Fife's own Jennie Lee in 1969. How do we supply the hands-on approach, not just to instruct people in new technologies but to enthuse them? We can develop technologies such as high definition television and virtual laboratories in collaboration with advanced technical economies in Europe.

We have to make good the decline in the practical experience, which we were once able to supply in the shipyards on Clydeside, and introduce mentoring by bringing people in from their offshore roles to help young people to understand processes in a hands-on way. We have to make use of the people who come to Scotland as migrants from Europe, who are often very well qualified indeed and capable of communicating their knowledge. We should also use new, sophisticated forms of technical communication.

We also need enthusiasm. On 4 February, I will lead a members' business debate on a friend of mine who died two months ago, John Burnie, who, in his professional role, was a shift manager at Longannet—in other words, he was the man who could have plunged us into total darkness in central Scotland if he had not been up to the job. Otherwise, he built up the Bo'ness railway museum, the contents of which are now worth more than £2 million. He always wanted the museum to be used to give practical, hands-on education to a new generation of people, who would have to be specialised in that area of high-quality, heavy engineering, which we thought we had left in the past but which we have to relearn fast. I think that we have the components to hand. In the debate, we have seen a remarkable degree of consensus emerge. As Tom Johnston is celebrated as saying,

"What men are prepared to do together"— or what men and women are prepared to do together—

"they can do."

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour 3:49 pm, 28th January 2010

We all agree that, if we are to compete successfully in this challenging economic climate and ensure that we are well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented by economic recovery, Scotland needs an increasingly skilled population. There is no argument in the Parliament about that. To achieve it, we need a fit-for-purpose skills strategy. My colleague David Whitton's amendment seeks that and I hope that members will support it at 5 o'clock. We need an updated strategy to meet the needs of Scotland's economy. It is vital in the short term, but it will be just as crucial as we move from the recession to recovery.

Scotland's 43 colleges of further and higher education are crucial to delivering the skills, knowledge and training that we need to ensure that Scotland can compete at the cutting edge and that people have the skills that they need to work and live. I was pleased to hear the minister acknowledge the role of Scotland's colleges this afternoon. In 2007-08, students in the college sector studied for more than 348,000 work-related qualifications. The vocational qualifications that are offered range from those that develop basic skills and employability to higher national certificates and diplomas. We heard from my colleague John Park about the importance of modern apprenticeships and the support that colleges provide through the various awarding bodies.

Increasingly, colleges work with universities to deliver degree courses and with employers and universities to deliver innovative employed-status programmes such as engineers of the future. My local college, Adam Smith College, is involved in that programme in partnership with Forth Valley College and Heriot-Watt University. As we heard, colleges also deliver critical sections of modern apprenticeships, and at present they are keeping in training modern apprentices who have lost their jobs. That relates to Margaret Smith's point. In 2007-08, more than 16,200 students were registered with colleges for training that supported modern apprenticeship, skillseeker or new deal programmes.

Colleges have proven their ability to respond rapidly, strategically and locally to the recession. They have risen to the challenge by helping redundant apprentices to continue their studies, as I said, and they make a significant contribution to the national partnership action for continuing employment by providing the highly skilled workforce that is required. However, I say to the minister that colleges are struggling. The sector has faced mounting pressure over the past 18 months. It has experienced a significant shortfall in bursary funding as well as a sharp increase in the number of applicants, as we heard today. We need to take on board the fact that they also have improved retention rates. We want that, but it is putting pressure on the service. Adam Smith College, which serves the whole of central Fife, received £424,000 in extra funding, but it needed £790,000 just for the provision of bursaries. The Scottish Government must help and must show commitment to the colleges if we are to move forward.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I take on board the point about support for colleges, but will Marilyn Livingstone acknowledge that, as well as the additional money for student support, which increased by about 9 per cent in the past year, we provided Adam Smith College with revenue support for course provision and capital investment in the new part of the college, which I visited last week? We provided more than £1.5 million to make that happen, which was added to the well-husbanded resources of the college itself. An awful lot of support is going in over and above student support.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour

I accept that. I would not detract from the additional funding or the commitment to Scotland's colleges. What I am saying is that they are now struggling. If we are truly committed to allowing those who need to learn to do so, we need to do more. Adam Smith College has had a new build through funding from the previous Administration and is hoping to develop, particularly to meet the needs of the new energy sectors. I hope that support for that will be forthcoming.

We need a joined-up approach across the sector. If a skills strategy is to work, Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council and Scottish Government targets must work in synergy, and I can give the minister a perfect example of where that is not happening. As convener of the cross-party group on construction, I have been made aware of Scottish funding council proposals to cut funding for architecture, the built environment and planning courses in the universities and colleges from £6,400 to £5,000 per student, a reduction of 22 per cent. The construction sector has told me that such a move will make graduate training unsustainable and one can well imagine the impact that that will have on our targets for climate change, housing and, in particular, planning. The one barrier that has been highlighted in all the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee's inquiries has been planning and the lack of planners. What will we do to address that? We will cut funding by 22 per cent. Everyone in the chamber wants to support our economy, but such proposals fly in the face of that aim. The Government should consider refreshing the strategy to bring together synergies and ensure that it and its agencies work together for the good of the Scottish economy and the Scottish people.

There needs to be more discussion with skills sector councils, which can play an important role, the trade union movement and industry. As I said, only a joined-up and holistic approach will provide a solution, and I hope that the minister will be able to support the Labour Party amendment at decision time.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat 3:56 pm, 28th January 2010

I am pleased to make a brief contribution to this important debate on Scotland's future skills strategy. The chamber is unanimous in its view of the importance of skills to the Scottish economy's long-term development and the need for a skills strategy that sets Scotland up to take advantage of future opportunities. However, we lack that very strategy and any clear direction to ensure that it is put in place.

There are huge opportunities in Scotland's energy sector in, for example, the development of our offshore wind, wave and tidal energy potential. We also need to deal with Scotland's appalling and abysmal record on house insulation, and jobs could be created now to carry out the necessary retrofitting. However, the skills need to be in place. Such issues have been missed in the debate so far, but they must be addressed.

I also find it rather odd that we have spent an hour debating the skills strategy without anyone mentioning Skills Development Scotland's corporate plan, which was published this week. [Interruption.] I apologise—David Whitton mentioned it. However, one would think that it would be the focus of the debate. The fact that it is not perhaps says a lot about Skills Development Scotland, which, I am afraid to say, does not appear to be focused clearly on ensuring that a skills strategy is in place to support Scotland's economic future. Its plan might well refer to the key sectors of the creative industries, financial and business services, energy, food and drink, tourism, life sciences and universities, but it does not make it clear how it will find and fill the gaps in skills that need to be filled. We need to start to address some of those key issues and I hope that the minister will give us a clearer idea of how we ensure that Scotland is skilled for the future.

My primary focus in this speech is the potential lost generation, which members have already mentioned. It is of course important that we learn from the past. If we consider previous recessions—

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

Just before the member develops his point, I should point out that when I talked about Skills Development Scotland's corporate plan—I am sorry that he did not hear me—I highlighted its three main priority areas: children aged 12 to 19; adults over 20 without any skills; and adults over 20 who are looking to develop their skills. Does he agree that those areas are worth prioritising?

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

It seems reasonably sensible that Skills Development Scotland's priority should be to develop skills.

My concern is that the pattern of recessions—I am not saying that anyone is particularly to blame for that pattern—means that we will potentially have a lost generation. It is a pattern that I have seen. I had the misfortune to graduate from university during the recession of the early 1980s, when there was a bulge in the number of young people who came out of schools, colleges, apprenticeships and universities with no job prospects. We should be learning from that to ensure that this recession does not also result in a lost generation, and we should do what we can to assist those people. That is why it is important that we address issues such as college place funding. I have been in correspondence with the Scottish funding council and the minister. At question time I asked about funding for my local college, Elmwood College, which has taken on 15 per cent more full-time students this year without receiving an extra penny of funding. As a result, the college has had to spread its teaching resources much more thinly, and it has decided to cut bursary awards to 90 per cent of the full award so that students are subsidising the additional places. Surely that is not acceptable; we must address that issue.

When I asked the funding council why Elmwood College, uniquely in Fife, had missed out, I was told that it was because it did not meet certain criteria that the funding council has put in place. It gives extra investment to colleges that serve more than 10 per cent of activity in a local authority area. Small rural colleges tend not to do that, so there is a bias built in to the system against rural colleges. I am pleased that, in answer to my question, the minister indicated that the Government is considering the issue of rural colleges. It is important to ensure that, just because someone lives in a rural area, they do not face the multiple disadvantages that can be faced in rural areas, such as having no access to college places or the other facilities that are available in urban areas, such as transport. Lack of those things can leave people seriously isolated in rural communities if they are unemployed.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

I would like to give some clarity to Iain Smith's point. The allocation of the consequential money was given to the funding council and it was asked to prioritise its onward distribution to the places that have been hardest hit by the recession. That money was for that purpose and future allocations will not necessarily follow that pattern.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I understand that point, but the way in which the money was allocated had a built-in bias against rural colleges. Elmwood College is in an area that qualifies under the 10 per cent unemployment criteria, but it did not qualify under the arbitrary rule that it has to serve 10 per cent of students in the college's area. That rule disadvantages smaller rural colleges for no reason.

When the minister is concluding, could he give us a bit more information about why Scottish Enterprise has decided to discontinue the graduates for business scheme? When he answered the question about that this afternoon, the First Minister suggested that it was the result of an evaluation that was carried out for Scottish Enterprise. I have a copy of that evaluation in my hand and it is dated October 2008, so it is not as if Scottish Enterprise suddenly discovered that the scheme was not working. The evaluation says that the scheme should continue. It suggests that there should be some improvements, particularly in the geographic spread, but it says that it should not be dismantled.

It is important to address the issue of graduate skills. Graduates need work experience but, although many of them are graduating with appropriate qualifications, they cannot get that experience because the jobs are not there. A scheme such as the graduates for business scheme allows them to get that experience and get themselves on to the job market. There is a scheme in Ireland that is very effective at placing graduate interns, and that helps them to get employment and get on to the ladder. There is a serious danger that we will end up with a generation that has left university and cannot get a job or experience, so when the economy picks up, the next generation of graduates will get those jobs and opportunities, not those who are missing out at the moment. I hope that the minister will address that point and give us a proper answer to the question why the graduates for business scheme has been abandoned.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party 4:04 pm, 28th January 2010

I am interested in how the communication between all the partners in the process of developing skills has been working. I am also interested to see what progress has been made. It seems to be recognised all around the chamber that after all the upheavals that there were during the creation of Skills Development Scotland, there has been a quite remarkable increase in its activity and work The report from Willy Roe shows an increase in the number of modern apprenticeships by more than 70 per cent during the operational year 2009-10, and an increase in individual learning account 200 Scotland learners by 41 per cent. It also mentions partnership action for continuing employment's involvement with 16,331 individuals in that same year. That is part of our attempts to tackle skills development at a time of grave difficulty.

One or two members have mentioned the distancing of skills development from the jobs that are available. The Tory amendment refers to meeting employers' needs, but it is essential to understand that that is only one aspect of what Skills Development Scotland must do. The organisation must work out exactly what the opportunities are in industries to which employers might sign up in due course.

A good example of that is in the work of the Scottish funding council's renewable energy skills group, which has produced a work plan that aligns with the Scottish Government's renewables action plan. Christopher Harvie talked about the potential of renewables. In various parts of the country, it will be essential for people in colleges and so on who develop skills to understand what skills will be required.

I will give a brief anecdote. About 30 years ago, when I was a guidance teacher, we expected the establishment of a chemical processing factory on ground near Nigg in Easter Ross and we discussed with the company involved and with agencies what relevant skills youngsters should develop in schools. The factory did not come about, but the point is that Skills Development Scotland needs to start with schools in having a view of the economy as a whole and aiming at industries that are likely to expand and to require apprentices.

Members, including Margaret Smith, have said that the house building industry has had some problems, but the number of schools, hospitals, roads and railways that are being built means that large parts of the civil engineering industry have been employing and increasingly using our workforce. Throughout the recession, Scottish Water's programmes have not stopped. Scottish Water uses 40 per cent of the country's engineering capacity. Those people are being employed, so the picture is better when put in context with the other issue of who requires skills.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I could be churlish and mention the Scottish Futures Trust, but I will not do that. I focused on house construction, because house builders have really experienced the downturn. However, there are welcome signs that that might be about to change in some parts of Scotland.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

Indeed. Many of us have been lobbied day and daily on the matter; at one point, those of us who are members of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee took evidence on it almost weekly.

Skills Development Scotland's creation involved a period of upheaval. However, at the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee's meeting just yesterday, the Scottish Trades Union Congress deputy general secretary, Stephen Boyd, said that, after the upheavals, Skills Development Scotland was now doing good and positive work. That recognises the reality that Skills Development Scotland is coming into its own.

As I was a careers guidance teacher and I have worked with the careers service, I deplore the fact that about five changes have been made to organisations to restructure that service in different parts of the country. Skills Development Scotland is only the most recent such change, but it has at last brought together the services involved and we should give it a fair wind—I believe that members across the Parliament have a will to do so.

I will concentrate on a couple of important issues that relate to redundancies and so on. Good evidence in the Slims Consulting report for the Federation of Small Businesses shows us that Skills Development Scotland is good at focusing on broad sectors in which skills need to be developed but that small businesses in which redundancies might be made were more difficult to handle. A recommendation of the report that we should endorse is that

"Business support services currently available to small and micro businesses should be reviewed."

That is part of the refresh process; we will be able to see its development. That was one of four major recommendations in the Slims Consulting report. The key challenges that face small business are twofold: the ability to identify the skills development needs of its people and to help them to find new skills if it has to shed some of them, particularly at this time. I hope that the minister will take that on board.

We have put in place the most extensive and comprehensive skills and employability training in the UK. It may not all be working perfectly thus far, but the record of this Government in skills development and support for vocational training is second to none. We should build on that positive picture and recognise the ways in which it can be fine tuned.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour 4:10 pm, 28th January 2010

I am pleased to be taking part in the debate. I welcome the consensus view of the chamber that, if we are to achieve economic recovery, skills must be at the heart of the discussion, for both businesses and individuals. Today, Labour is calling for the early publication of a refreshed skills strategy that acknowledges that we face greater challenges than ever before and that we must ensure that we have a responsive skills strategy that exploits fully the potential of Scotland and its people.

This week, we have seen reports that the UK has come out of recession, although we all recognise that the economy is still fragile. We must continue to invest in recovery, an essential part of which is investing in skills. Although unemployment across the UK has fallen, it has risen in some areas of Scotland and, while the unemployment rate in Scotland remains lower than that in the rest of the UK, the situation is concerning. I am sure that the minister appreciates how important it is for the Scottish Government to do all that it can to support jobs and to help people who lose their job to get back into employment.

Earlier this week, Jim Mather raised the important issue of credit to companies and welcomed the UK Government's announcement on the issue. That said, it is clear that the Scottish Government has a job still to do to ensure that the necessary resources are in place to deliver programmes such as training for work and get ready for work, as well as the modern apprenticeship schemes.

Like David Whitton, who highlighted the issue at First Minister's question time, I would welcome an assurance from the minister on a replacement for the graduates for business scheme. Graduates often seem to be seen as outside the skills debate, but they need to be as engaged in the lifelong learning agenda as everyone else is. They need to have access to upskilling opportunities. The UK Government has announced a new graduate guarantee under which any graduate who is unemployed after six months will have access to an internship, training or help to become self employed. I am interested in the minister's response on that and to hear the detail of the opportunities that the Scottish Government intends to offer graduates.

As Marilyn Livingstone outlined, colleges play a key role in the economic recovery. They have always been at the forefront of the delivery of new skills. They are ready to adopt innovative responses; being close to business, they can readily meet its demands. Ten years ago, the Scottish colleges biotechnology consortium was set up to develop a skilled workforce to support Scotland's emerging biotech sector. That is an example of forward-looking and responsive planning that delivers the skills that emerging businesses and sectors need. Again and again, colleges are seen to be at the forefront of new sectors such as renewables, as well as leading in the delivery of skills in more traditional sectors, such as the innovative engineers of the future programme, with which the minister is familiar. As the minister knows, the First Minister gave a warm response to the point that my colleague raised at First Minister's question time on the increased demand that colleges are experiencing and which is leading to some colleges having to reject potential students. Will the minister ensure that any capacity in colleges includes investment in student support?

This week saw the publication of Save the Children's report "Severe Child Poverty in Scotland 2010" in which 95,000 children in Scotland were identified as living in severe poverty. Save the Children stated that the families of those children are £113 a week short of what they need to cover essentials such as bills, clothes and transport. It said that children in single parent households are three times as likely to live in severe poverty as those who live in two-parent households, and that more than two thirds of all children in severe poverty live in families where no adult works.

As part of its response, the Scottish Government has called for increased investment in and reform of the benefits and tax credits system. However, Save the Children made it clear that it is calling on the Scottish Government to do more to be part of the solution. It called on the Government to implement an extension of free child care for low-income parents, give more support to parents who want to take up part-time work or undergo training, and target support at those who live in severe poverty so that they can get help to get back to work.

That call is closely tied to the need for a refreshed skills strategy. I think that we all agree on the central importance of skills to the economy. We all want Scotland to compete at the high-skilled and knowledge-driven end of the economy, but we must ensure that we deliver access to those opportunities to everyone and that policies aimed at getting people into employment and reskilling opportunities reach the most difficult to reach in society.

The minister may have seen briefings that members have received from Carers Scotland, which highlighted the difficulties that unpaid carers experience in engaging with skills opportunities. It is important that we are mindful of equality issues when revisiting the skills strategy. We must consider how the learning, skills and employability infrastructure can more effectively support unpaid and young carers. We must ensure that, when developing practical initiatives, we recognise that one size does not fit all and that support that people need to develop their skills—more flexible delivery, increased child care or maximised access and support—is made available.

Barnardo's has also made a contribution to the debate, raising the concerns of disadvantaged young people. It is crucial that employment and training schemes meet the needs of young people who are furthest away from the labour market. There is a danger that those young people, often from highly disadvantaged backgrounds, will miss out on employment opportunities. They may, therefore, become permanently excluded from the labour market before the age of 25 and develop into a lost generation. Real opportunities are offered by the third sector, the private sector and the public sector working together. As the Barnardo's examples illustrate, those opportunities achieve results in delivering on-going learning and equipping young people with skills that will lead them into work.

I hope that the minister will be mindful of the huge potential of his portfolio to contribute to tackling inequality, meeting the 2010 target on child poverty and getting Scotland back on track to meet the 2020 target of eradicating child poverty. Clearly, that is a greater challenge in an economic downturn, but a refreshed skills strategy that recognises its role in tackling poverty and disadvantage and ensures that opportunities reach out to all communities would be welcome.

We are in a different world from that of 2007, when the skills strategy was first published. Even then, there were concerns that it did not measure up to the task, but the economic challenges that we face now demand even greater focus, effort and—dare I say it—resources if the strategy is to deliver what it needs to deliver.

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party 4:17 pm, 28th January 2010

I apologise for being unable to attend the opening part of the debate.

There is no doubt but that the future of Scotland depends on the skills that are taught today. It is not only the present that touches us, unlike the "cow'rin, tim'rous beastie" of Burns. If we are to cope with the "cranreuch cauld" of the world economy and to improve the grossly unequal society in which we live, we must be prepared. What better preparation can there be than a broad and solid education, which should include a set of skills with which to earn "barley-bree an paintit room"?

I am proud of our Government's record of investment in skills. Even in the face of budget cuts and recession, the Scottish Government remains committed to increasing spending on lifelong learning by £75.5 million in 2010-11. Scotland's colleges are due to receive an extra £45 million—an increase of more than 9.6 per cent in these difficult times. That is solid evidence of a commitment to education and skills.

The November 2007 target of 50,000 training opportunities was exceeded by 17,000 in 2007-08 and by nearly 20,000 in the following year. Those figures include flexible learning opportunities that were funded through individual learning accounts, as well as programmes such as modern apprenticeships and training for work. In February 2009, the Government announced £16 million to provide an additional 7,800 apprenticeship places—a 73 per cent increase.

However impressive those achievements are, there is always room for improvement and vigilance. To illustrate that, recently I wrote to the Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning—the unfortunate individual who is sitting at the front of the chamber—to convey the concerns of my constituents regarding CITB-ConstructionSkills. Notably, they were concerned about the fact that the United Kingdom directors of the organisation had run up a large deficit through programmes in England and were taking on extra management-level staff. It was put to me that the UK directors were scapegoating junior employees, such as accountants who were reporting the situation.

Furthermore, I was told that there were plans to make more than 100 front-line staff redundant and that Scotland was expected to take a disproportionate number of those redundancies. My informants alleged the use of what might be described as unscrupulous strong-arm tactics to force people to take redundancy, and that the redundancies would result in Scottish staff having to look after 160 apprentices per head, while English staff look after fewer than 80 per head. I am pleased to say that the minister has met the Scottish director of ConstructionSkills to discuss the situation and has assured me that he will keep a close eye on developments. Nonetheless, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity once more to underline my constituents' concerns and to strongly urge ministers to continue to monitor the situation. We cannot allow the very effective delivery by the dedicated staff of ConstructionSkills Scotland to be undermined by failures that are outwith their control.

More fundamentally, there is a malaise at the heart of UK society—namely the extreme and destructive inequality that has been highlighted by yesterday's announcement by the national equality panel that the gap between rich and poor is now worse than it was 40 years ago. That malaise can be partly attributed to the way in which we in the UK undervalue the skilled trades, which is corrosive to society in several ways.

Before I discuss that further, I should point out that what we call trades are in European countries generally valued as high-status professions. In Austria, membership of the Federal Economic Chamber is compulsory, so all businesses are represented. Craftspeople and tradespeople sit alongside bankers and economists, and they take pride in the quality and professionalism of their work.

Photo of John Park John Park Labour

Bill Wilson is worried about the lack of skills development over the past few years and how that might contribute to the current economic climate in the UK. Will he acknowledge that the number of apprenticeship places has increased tenfold since 1997, not just UK-wide but here in Scotland?

Photo of Bill Wilson Bill Wilson Scottish National Party

Yes. I certainly recognise that the number of apprenticeship places has increased.

That is important, but the point that I was making earlier related to my concerns that, if ConstructionSkills Scotland takes the financial hit that might have resulted from management decisions south of the border, it might affect training. It is fair to raise that point and to urge ministers to continue to monitor the situation.

Status and happiness tend to correlate with relative material wealth and relative pay. However, the top earners in our very unequal society are not as happy as they would be in a more equal society, even if they were earning a bit less. Inequality has been shown to correlate with both individual and societal ills, such as short lives, physical and mental ill health, violence, lack of productivity and substance abuse.

If there is a large gap between the earnings of the people we think of as professionals and those who practise trades, it will be bad in two ways. First, the associated inequality will have the consequences that I have outlined. Secondly, more people will aspire to join the professions and will look down on the trades. That tends to cause society generally to overvalue university qualifications relative to practical vocational qualifications.

Not everyone is equipped for a university degree. There must be equality of opportunity so that people from disadvantaged backgrounds have equal access on the basis of their potential. It is counterproductive to send out the message that someone who does not go to university is somehow a loser. Highly skilled and professional craftspeople see their skills not receiving the respect they deserve, which must diminish pride, motivation and recruitment.

Our economy cannot hope to compete in the world market without constant development and improvement of skills. However, let me make a personal plea and return to a point that I made at the outset about the need for a broad and solid education. Education is not simply about producing well-tuned cogs: it is about democracy and rounded individuals. For most of our history, the value of education was that it allowed the individual to understand, enjoy and challenge the world about him. A high-quality education system that produces balanced and confident individuals who are able to think for themselves is fundamental to democracy.

We must, indeed, work for a competitive and skilled-up Scotland and equip individuals for the modern industrial world, but the value of education is, and should be, so much more than that. Mark O'Neill, director of research at Culture and Sport Glasgow, wrote in a recent issue of the Scottish Association for Mental Health's magazine that research has shown that cultural participation is a matter of life and death.

Education should be about skills and employability, but it must also develop compassion, self-confidence and the ability to understand the complexity of our world.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come now to closing speeches. I have approximately seven minutes in hand, so members may by all means extend their contributions a little bit.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 4:24 pm, 28th January 2010

Had I known that time would be so generous, I would have brought my spinning plates or juggling balls.

This has been an interesting and largely consensual debate.

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

Yes, indeed.

I wish to focus on something that David Whitton and my colleague Iain Smith referred to: Skills Development Scotland and its corporate plan. To be fair, the plan is the closest thing that we have to a revised skills strategy, given that the Government's previous attempts at a strategy were rejected by the Parliament. I was a little perplexed by what seemed to be the coincidence of the corporate plan arriving in our e-mail inboxes at the same time as we saw in the Business Bulletin that this debate had been scheduled. Perhaps that says more about my cynicism about how things are done than it says about what happened.

As might be expected from a corporate plan for an organisation that cost £16 million to set up and which pays its chief executive in the order of £125,000 per year, the document is shiny and brimming with managementspeak, but there are one or two bits of vacuous technobabble. The plan has clearly been produced for its audience, but what is strange about it is that the ordinary reader cannot find out what is being done. That is a worry, which the minister needs to address.

The minister should perhaps also have a conversation with SDS about how much of the plan focuses on internet access and the use of digital media. Such an approach might be useful, but if that is the proposed way forward, then I am concerned that we might lose the impact of direct, face-to-face contact with skills advisers that people are used to having—the careers staff whom we all used to see in school. It is ironic that much of the corporate plan focuses on use of the internet, when the old corporate plan does not appear on the SDS website.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

I understand what it says in the corporate plan. However, a number of advisers are dealing with PACE issues, for example, through face-to-face contact. It is not a case of using one approach or the other. Does Mr O'Donnell agree that we are developing the use of the internet to help us and to add to the work that advisers do?

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

I would accept that if it were the case that that work is adding to what advisers do, but I understand that SDS is moving careers advisers out of their positions to manage contracts with external providers. I am not convinced that we are using people's skills to the best advantage. Given that there have been wholesale exits of staff since SDS was established, there are serious questions about the skills set in the organisation.

The corporate plan does not give details about problems that have arisen for individuals and employers in our constituencies. Probably members of all parties have encountered issues such as the postcode lottery in training capacity and service provision, which causes major problems for apprentices who are looking for external providers and for employers who want to place people whom they have taken on.

There are major issues to do with how Skills Development Scotland communicates. To some extent, the issue ties in with what the Government does, because I understand that SDS was not advised—even privately—in advance of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning's welcome announcement about the £1,000 payment to businesses that take on a new apprentice. As a consequence, employers who phoned SDS after the cabinet secretary's announcement to gain access to the payment were met with blank expressions from staff who knew nothing about it.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

First, I confirm that SDS was informed about the decision well before the announcement took place. On Hugh O'Donnell's point about the coincidence of the timing of this debate and the corporate plan, ministers had no role in the timing of the corporate plan, the decision on which was taken by SDS.

We are trying to ensure that SDS concentrates on activity that helps people back into work. In a much more benign economic environment, SDS would have considered its corporate plan, its forthcoming operational plan and its communications plan, but it has had to concentrate on what needs to be done just now.

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

I have to accept the minister's assurances on the timing. Far be it from me to suggest that the Government would do anything untoward in that regard.

SDS may have been advised of the announcement, but those who answered the telephones certainly were not. A number of employers have made that observation to me since the £1,000 for a new apprentice—which, in fairness, is welcome—was announced.

It is unfortunate that an organisation that is about delivering a range of important services that we and our constituents are entitled to expect does not seem to have its act together in many ways that have a direct impact on those who seek its services. The corporate plan says that it is about partnership working. The first part of that should be effective communication with all the partners, which include the Scottish Government. I ask the minister to give us some assurances that communication will be improved and that all the partners that are involved in SDS's work, which is vital for our country's continuing success and recovery, are on the same page and working to a joined-up agenda. It is clear to me that that is not entirely the case.

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative 4:31 pm, 28th January 2010

I will focus my speech on the second leg of the Scottish Conservative amendment, which

"calls on the Scottish Government to ensure that the system is more demand-led and that publicly funded training matches far more closely the needs of employers."

I will tackle that call in a specific way by focusing on one industry: tourism. It employs 200,000 people in Scotland and is worth about £4 billion to the Scottish economy. The reasons why I have selected that industry are that it is important in itself, I think that there is a prospect for Government action if I make my remarks specific instead of generic, the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee made a detailed study of the industry about two years ago—I note that a number of members who were on the committee at the time are present—and, if we focus on a specific industry, we can use it as a model for other industries.

I accept that Keith Brown was not a minister at the time of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee inquiry, so remarks in which I am critical of Government responses do not apply personally to him. However, I urge him to take on board what I say and to pledge to examine some of the areas that I will ask him to examine.

When the committee examined the tourism industry, our adviser told us that there had been

"significant growth in supply-led training provision."

Evidence was given to us that there were more than 400 publicly funded tourism-related courses in Scotland alone, and that a tiny fraction of people who went through them ended up in the industry. The adviser told us about diminished practical training, which led to employer criticism of students' practical ability and competence when they got into the industry.

We had some remarkable evidence-taking sessions at which we heard from restaurant and café owners. One restaurant owner said:

"I have not been able to make any connection with the colleges in Scotland. On several occasions, I have tried to unravel the mysteries of how to get involved with those who teach in colleges and how I might get their best pupils to want to come and work for me, but that has proved difficult."—[Official Report, 20 February 2008; c 418.]

There appeared to us to be a total disconnection between the providers of training and the employers in the industry.

The committee's conclusions were agreed without division, so all the major parties agreed with the statements that I am about to go through. The committee said that skills and training in the tourism industry are

"an area where the current structure is patently failing to deliver. During the course of the ... inquiry, we were continually amazed at the number of examples of companies ... telling us about the problems they face in recruitment and retention, the mismatch between the skills they need and those offered by the graduates from our institutions and the confused state of affairs in terms of what is provided overall."

We also concluded that

"As a first step, the Committee believes that the Scottish Government should organise a review group consisting of leading industry specialists ... and chaired by one such figure. ... This review group should make recommendations to the Minister on the type and number of education, skills and training courses for the future. A starting principle for such a review is a wholesale rationalisation into a model that suits Scottish needs and has industry buy-in."

Those are fairly strong words from the committee. I repeat that there was total consensus, without division, on what ought to happen.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

It seems to me that where engineering employers have had the biggest effect has been on the boards of colleges, where they have ensured that the courses match their needs. Have tourism employers done the same?

Photo of Gavin Brown Gavin Brown Conservative

The simple answer is that right now I do not know, but I suspect that had that group been constituted as it ought to have been, we might well have had an answer to that question.

A group was set up—I repeat that Keith Brown was not a minister at the time—and it reported a year later. First, the group ignored the starting principle and reason for its existence; it referred to some of the conclusions of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee's report, but it totally ignored the starting principle that a review was required for "wholesale rationalisation". There was no involvement whatever by the tourism minister. From what I can see in the group's report, there were no evidence sessions. It was chaired not by an industry specialist, but by the Scottish Government and the co-ordinator of the group was also from the Scottish Government. Most important, of the 22 people on the group, only three were from the tourism industry, so it was not an industry group. The rest of the members of the group were, of course, from national agencies, colleges and the Scottish Government.

The unhappy result at the end of the review and report was that the group concluded that the range of qualifications was not a problem, that the industry was broadly happy with what was going on and that, ultimately, no real change was required. So, an incredible piece of work was done by the industry and by the committee to pull all this together, but the Government's response concluded the complete opposite of what the entire industry and every member of every party on the committee had concluded.

I ask the minister to do several things. First, I challenge him to read the committee report—the relevant part of it; not the entire report—and the evidence that was given at that particular session. I also challenge him to read the Government task group report and, most important, to re-form the group so that it is constituted as it ought to have been. Keith Brown said at the start of the debate that none of us should be slow to react and that every public pound that is spent on skills and training must be appropriate and effective. I challenge him to make a start with the tourism industry and to back up those important words with action.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour 4:38 pm, 28th January 2010

There is no doubt that we have had an interesting and informative debate. There is no doubt, either, that members of the Scottish Parliament who have attended the debate are concerned about the need to increase the skill levels of the Scottish workforce and to see the methods put in place to achieve that worthy aim.

The statistics show that we have a lot of very highly skilled individuals here in Scotland but, sadly, we also have a very large number who have no qualifications at all. That is not good for the nation's productivity; indeed, it is one of the main reasons why Scotland's productivity figures lag behind other OECD countries. We also have a number of individuals who would like to be able to access skills training and a job, but, through no fault of their own, find barriers in the way because of personal circumstances or disability. I would like to mention them, too, as any skills strategy should be able to provide training for anyone who wants it, so that there is an equal choice and equal chance for anyone to improve themselves.

The briefing that we got from the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, which was mentioned by Christina McKelvie, highlighted the plight of Scotland's 660,000 unpaid carers—a number that includes 100,000 young carers. The trust argues very persuasively that those carers must not be left out when it comes to developing a skills strategy. I agree. I am sure that the minister was listening to that contribution.

Many carers try to keep working while undertaking their caring responsibilities—in the United Kingdom, nearly one in eight carers is in that position—but about a third of carers are not employed at all. Of those, more than half say that they would like to be able to take a job. I will not go through all the Princess Royal Trust for Carer's suggestions but, like Christina McKelvie, I commend to the minister its suggestion that the Government consider what Skills Development Scotland and other national bodies can do to maximise access and support for unpaid carers so that they can learn, gain skills and find or maintain employment.

The charity Rathbone—which may or may not be well-known to members—has outlets across Scotland that work with young people aged from 14 to 19 to help them to make positive choices about their future by providing, among other things, get ready for work training. When I visited the charity's premises in Glasgow, the very valid point was put to me that, although the extra investment in modern apprentice places is welcome, too many of our youngsters do not have the standard grades that are required to qualify for one of those places. As a charity, Rathbone relies on donations to maintain its operations and it reported to me that it has experienced some difficulties with funding.

As I said in my opening speech, we believe that support is also needed for training for work and get ready for work programmes. Every employer has a story to tell about young applicants with literacy, numeracy and communication difficulties, which act as a barrier to gaining a job. Organisations such as Rathbone that provide youngsters with those skills need some security of funding if they are to continue to provide those valuable services.

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

I am well acquainted with the work of Rathbone, so I endorse David Whitton's comments. Given that Rathbone also tries to address the needs of cared-for and looked-after children, does he agree that we must also not ignore that issue, given our various bad records as corporate parents across the country? Does he agree that those young people also need to be included in the skills strategy?

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

Indeed, I do. It remains a mystery to me—and to many others—why cared- for children do so badly in educational attainment. I cannot understand that and I think that an investigation into the issue is long overdue. Assistance needs to be given to those who find themselves in that unfortunate position.

It is important that we listen to the sector skills councils. I am delighted to see Jacqui Hepburn, who is chief executive of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils, in the public gallery this afternoon.

Another visit that I made recently was to the Construction Skills facility at Inchinnan, where I watched scaffolders of various ages being put through their paces. Demolition and scaffolding are growth areas, but before any youngster is let loose on erecting scaffolding, he or she will spend six months on placement with an employer to get used to the equipment and to the language of the job. The job has a language of its own—only some of which can be repeated. After their placements, the trainees take their first course at Inchinnan before going back out on the job. A year later, they can return to increase their skill levels further and then go back to work. After another year, they can come back to do the advanced course, which involves being able to erect very complicated scaffolding safely and securely in difficult and awkward positions.

Such jobs tend to attract adult entrants, but that is where an element of unfairness kicks in. If the employee is under 19, the employer will receive £3,500 towards the training costs. If the employee is an adult, the amount is only £1,500. The sector skills council would like to see some fairness dropped into that. Given that we now have so many unemployed adults over 20 who would go into that kind of trade, that issue is worth looking at.

Other examples of excellence in construction skills exist throughout Scotland. Glasgow Caledonian University offers a construction management course—such courses are badly needed, according to the sector skills council—and is the UK's largest supporter of graduates studying environment-related courses. South Lanarkshire College has the UK's largest built environment department, which includes, I am told, a zero-carbon house that is fitted with all the latest energy-saving and insulation equipment. That is a 21st century facility for 21st century training.

However, we could do more. In Northern Ireland, for the past two years people have been able to study a higher national diploma in wind turbine technology. There is surely a lesson for us there.

Let me turn now to some of the speeches that we have heard in the debate. Gavin Brown mentioned the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee's report on tourism, for which he and I formed part of the delegation that went to Vienna on a fact-finding visit. I was interested in Elizabeth Smith's remarks about pupils engaging in vocational education at an earlier age. In Vienna, we visited a hotel school, which pupils apply to join at the age of 14. If their application is accepted, they get the kind of training that is apparent in top-quality hotels and restaurants around the world.

Margaret Smith made a very valid point about ensuring that there is equality of treatment between the central belt and other parts of Scotland, and paid particular attention to jobseeker's allowance statistics.

As well as agreeing with Christina McKelvie's comments about the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, I found myself agreeing with her comments about the excellent work that the Scottish union learning fund is doing.

Photo of David Whitton David Whitton Labour

It was a first for me.

John Park, who held the skills brief before I did, called on the Government to consider holding another summit like the successful apprentice summit, in which there would be more focus on skills and training and in which all providers would participate.

Christopher Harvie mentioned Tom Johnston, who is well known in Kirkintilloch where I live, and Marilyn Livingstone talked about the funding council's proposed cut in funding for courses in architecture, the built environment and planning, which could result in a reduction in the number of courses for town planners. As the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee has identified, there is a shortage of town planners that needs to be addressed.

I see that the Presiding Officer is indicating that I do not need to conclude, so I will use the extra material that I prepared. I would hate to leave out my colleague Claire Baker who, along with other members, asked about the graduates for business scheme. Earlier today, the First Minister told me that a new scheme is being launched—in June, I think he said. We would welcome some detail on that, plus any information about what is to happen to the seven people who run the scheme, who face redundancy. Ms Baker also highlighted the difficulties that some people whom Barnardo's trains have in accessing the get ready for work programme. That is another issue that Skills Development Scotland could look into.

I mentioned the report on tourism, to which Gavin Brown referred, which suggested that Scotland could set up a hotel school and an investment bank purely for tourism, but perhaps those are ideas for another day.

I believe that it is always worth our while to debate and discuss the challenges that Scotland faces in providing our workforce with the skills that are needed to improve the country's productivity and grow our economy. A skilled workforce is a productive workforce. Even in a time of economic difficulty, companies should maintain their investment in training their workers. Lessons can be learned from companies such as Macphie of Glenbervie and Aviva, which I mentioned earlier.

The fact that, on this occasion, Labour has not lodged an amendment that attacks the Government does not mean that we agree with everything that the SNP is doing on skills. We do not. Indeed, we could argue that it is thanks to last year's Labour initiatives that the apprentice summit was held and other ideas such as adopt an apprentice have been introduced. As we say in our amendment, we would like to see a refreshed skills strategy that takes account of the situation that Scotland and its workforce face, and which is backed by the resources that are needed to provide the training places that will equip the employed and the unemployed with the skills that Scotland needs to drive its economy forward. That is why we will support the Government motion and the Tory amendment at decision time.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party 4:48 pm, 28th January 2010

I start by making the obvious point that it has been a good and constructive debate, in contrast to some of the previous debates on the subject. That means that, in general, we have a fairly good consensus on skills, which is important for one reason in particular. Over the past year, we have faced difficult times and we will continue to do so. It is because of the fact that we are in such serious circumstances that many people are struggling. People would not take it well if we were to knock lumps out of one another and make points for the sake of making points, so it is worth acknowledging the constructive manner in which the debate has been held.

The point has been made a number of times in the debate about everyone's desire not to have a lost generation, as has happened as a result of previous recessions. I point out that some of the problems that have been identified, not least by David Whitton, who spoke about people who are extremely hard to reach and bring into the jobs market, arise from the recession of the early 1980s, which was one the worst. The people concerned may not even have been born then, but we are still dealing with the consequences of that generational change. Of course, that makes it harder to deal with the effects of the recession with which we are now dealing. We are dealing with inherited problems.

I will try to deal with as many of the points that have been made as possible; I apologise if I do not reach all of them.

Liz Smith talked about training being focused on employer needs. We support considerable business involvement in training design and delivery, and we work with sector skills councils in particular. I acknowledge the work that has been done on that by Jackie Hepburn—who is in the gallery—in particular. We work closely with sector skills councils on the design and promotion of modern apprenticeships and on other training programmes and qualifications. Last year, we held a business-led apprenticeship summit, which John Park mentioned, to ensure that we focused on additional opportunities in which business demand was greatest. We would be interested in a further summit this year—John Park mentioned that, too. I take on board his constructive suggestion about having an annual summit, which we will certainly consider. Obviously, that would involve a wider skills and training agenda than there was at the apprenticeship summit last year.

Liz Smith talked about a skills academy. We generally support the idea of a skills academy model if it adds value, avoids duplication and focuses on key areas, but that is not the same as supporting a skills academy in a physical building. That said, we support that model and the employer involvement that it implies.

Christina McKelvie, Claire Baker and David Whitton talked about carers and the representations that all members received relating to the debate. As part of an overall carers strategy, we are developing a young carers strategy for publication in the first half of this year. That strategy will consider young carers in transitions, including those who are seeking further skills development through further education, higher education or employment. It is also worth saying that we provided funding of £200,000 to the Princess Royal Trust for Carers for three young carer initiatives, including a skills development strand. I take on board the comments that were made. We generally support the idea of being as flexible as possible to ensure that we reach that otherwise hard-to-reach group, but the representations that we all received made it clear that some of the problems relate to the benefits system, which sometimes cuts across what we are trying to do.

John Park has made constructive suggestions on adult apprenticeships and being flexible to me and to the cabinet secretary, and we will consider them.

Marilyn Livingstone spoke about the number of architects and planners that we are producing and the money that is going towards that. The issue is quite complex. There are quite a lot of arguments behind the Scottish funding council's treatment of the matter. I am happy to go into more detail in writing to Marilyn Livingstone on why the funding council is doing certain things. If she is still unhappy, I will happy to discuss the matter further with her.

We have heard what Iain Smith said about rural colleges a number of times before. I intervened to say that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning allocated the additional consequential money to the funding council with the agreement of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, and the funding council takes its own decisions. A number of rural colleges did not benefit from that, but, since then, I have had a number of discussions with individual principals of rural colleges, who have said that, although they did not benefit on that occasion, if the distribution had been done according to a formula, the amount that they would have received would not have made a substantial difference to what we are trying to achieve for economic recovery. At the time, it was about getting the biggest bang for our buck. I am sure that the cabinet secretary will consider each case on its merits in future if there are moneys to be distributed and that he will ensure that we get the best possible response from those moneys. There was no prejudice in any way against rural colleges; the intention was to deal with the areas of greatest need.

Iain Smith also mentioned the graduates for business scheme. That is not within my portfolio, but I am happy to say that, through the Scottish funding council, we are giving £3.5 million to support graduate skills and employability. That support focuses on work that is related to learning and training, enterprise, entrepreneurship and workforce development. Iain Smith will know that an alternative scheme is to come forward by the end of June, which will, I am told, result in an improved offer for graduates, not least because it will be applied more consistently throughout the country.

Claire Baker, who also mentioned the graduates for business scheme, spoke about student support, additional places in college and more investment in facilities. I agree with her points but, as I tried to make clear in my response to Marilyn Livingstone, we have done a great deal in that area already, although we are constrained by having a fixed budget. Adam Smith College, which Claire Baker mentioned, has received additional money for places—the figure throughout the country was a 9 per cent increase—and additional money for student support. The college has also received an additional £1.6 million to help with a new facility, which several members mentioned. That will be fantastic, because it will bring the best possible facilities for training apprentices and people for the renewables demand that is coming. Additional support has been provided, but we must have regard to the overall budget in doing that. However, I take the points that Claire Baker made.

Hugh O'Donnell made several points about Skills Development Scotland. It is true that the corporate plan cannot provide every possible detail that he would like. That will be dealt with by the operational plan and the communications plan. However, I take on board his points about the call centre and I will speak to Skills Development Scotland about that. I reiterate that the focus for Skills Development Scotland had to be on taking the necessary action to get people into apprenticeships and training and back into jobs. In the body's first year, it would have been wrong for us to have pushed it too hard on documents such as the corporate plan.

Gavin Brown spoke about the tourism industry. I worked for many years in that industry and have an understanding of the problems that he highlighted. However, he will find—he probably knows this in any event—that one of the issues is that wages in the industry tend to be low, which perhaps has a big impact on retention. I take on board the points that he made and undertake to consider them, but it is worth saying that a great deal of work is going on throughout the country. For example, North Highland College has a superb facility in Dornoch that is coming to fruition. [Interruption.]

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

Order. I am sorry, minister, but there is far too much conversation taking place. I want to hear the minister even if members do not.

Photo of Keith Brown Keith Brown Scottish National Party

That facility in Dornoch takes into account the needs of catering staff and front-of-house staff, which is an area that perhaps has not been given as much emphasis in the past. It is all very well having fantastic chefs and providing great food, but the front-of-house staff have to be there to provide the service. I take on board Gavin Brown's points and I undertake to read the reports that he mentioned and consider the review group's discussions.

The debate has been constructive. The Labour amendment is very constructive—that tone has been mirrored in the debate—and we are happy to accept and support it. The same applies to the Conservative amendment, which reflects the point that several members made about the importance of colleges and vocational training. We understand that point and a great deal of work is being done on the issue. We will continue that work and we are happy to accept and support the Conservative amendment.

We are in a serious situation for the country. We had a chance to reach unanimity and show the country that the Parliament is united on the need for a proper skills strategy. Therefore, it is unfortunate that we do not have unanimity because of the Liberal Democrats. Some of the points in their amendment are perfectly valid, particularly that on college places—Margaret Smith will know that we are considering the issue seriously—but there is a carping note. Margaret Smith has never said a truer sentence in her life when she said, "I could be churlish". I agree with that. I ask the Liberal Democrats to try to ensure that the Parliament has a united approach. I ask them, even at this late stage, to withdraw their amendment, so that we can have that united approach.

I thank everyone for what has been a positive debate.