11 January 2018

S5M-09821 Developing the Young Workforce

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): Good afternoon. The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-09821, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on developing the young workforce: review of progress at the midpoint of the seven-year programme.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

In relation to today’s topic, I draw members’ attention to my being a professional member of the Association for Computing Machinery, a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, all of which have an interest in the education of young people.

In relation to my life experience, I am largely an autodidact, which is a bit inconvenient because it means that I have no one to blame but myself for any shortcomings in my knowledge and understanding of the world. I have, however, re-engaged with education in recent times. Since I stopped being a minister in 2012, I have managed to find time to do an online postgraduate certificate at the University of Strathclyde. The reason why I raise that is that it illustrates the new ways in which education can be done. It was an online course, so I could choose at what time of day I did the study. I could choose exactly when I was going to complete exercises. If I came in bleary-eyed in the morning, that might have been some of the reason why.

That leads me to a much broader issue that we have not mentioned, that of self-paced learning, which is enabled by the development of online computer training. Particularly for people who have other responsibilities, such as childcare or caring for parents, it is of value to be able to choose the pace at which they move through an education system. That applies particularly to people who find even the present quite flexible approaches still too restrictive. As technology improves and develops, there is great scope for us to look at further opportunities in that area.

In that regard, I encourage the Government and others to think about where people get access to the technology. The people who we want to bring into the system are often those who have least access. That means having computer terminals in libraries and other public spaces and perhaps in voluntary sector places. Equally, we need the people who are there to be able to provide at least the basics of support and give a bit of direction to those who find themselves in difficulties.

I will move on to a more general issue, under the heading “Achieving the impossible”. One of the great things that our youngsters do is to achieve the impossible. Old lags like myself and others in the chamber might consider something beyond contemplation, but our youngsters do not know that it is impossible and they achieve it. I may have used this example before but, when I was a minister, we had only £12 million to do a wee bit of electrification of the railway network, when all the officials said that it would cost £27 million and could not be done for a penny less. Eventually, they got fed up and gave it to an engineering graduate apprentice, who worked out how to do it for £12 million, because he did not know that the project was impossible. He did it on the very simple basis that a bit of the overhead wires could have no power in it as the wires went under a bridge, so the bridge did not have to be jacked up and the railway did not have to be taken down, and that got the project in at £12 million instead of £27 million. There is huge potential in our youngsters and other people in the system and it is at our peril that we talk them out of tackling the impossible and succeeding.

We have talked a little about maths. The most expert mathematicians I ever see are people who do not regard themselves as doing any maths at all. Liz Smith talked about arithmetic. I was in the cohort who sat the very first ordinary grade arithmetic exam in 1962. I must say that I found it rather simple, although I am sure that others found value in it. The people who use maths without knowing it are the guys—sorry, but it is mostly guys—who stand around in the bookies with a wee pencil behind their ear, working out five-horse accumulators with complex odds and instantly saying how much money they will win if it all comes good. I cannot do that, and I have a degree in mathematics. People will not be persuaded to use or to acquire those kinds of skills if we do not persuade them to do so.

Elaine Smith: Surely the huge potential of our young people that Stewart Stevenson mentioned will not be realised with insecure work and low pay.

Stewart Stevenson: The member is absolutely correct. For some people, who choose things such as zero-hours contracts so that they work when it suits them, they are fine. However, we can all condemn exploitative zero-hours contracts that are controlled by employers. I will just leave that little thought there.

I very much welcome the support that there has been for people in rural areas such as Aberdeenshire and Moray, but we have a wee bit more to think about. Those who have to attend classes sometimes still have quite an issue with how to get to college. The bus services in the north-east have been retuned, which is generally quite helpful.

Finally, I want to say three things. First, people need to learn a systematic approach as part of their life skills, and that means actively learning about time management. Secondly, they need to learn how to develop and apply analytical skills. Finally—this is a hobby-horse of mine, because I lectured postgraduates on the subject for a couple of years—they need to learn project management skills. That applies to almost every area of life and work, but I have not heard it specifically referred to.


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