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Scottish Parliament Speech: Education and Skills (March 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I started my teaching career 44 years ago in the old Regent Road school teaching Post Office messenger boys who delivered telegrams on red motorcycles. In teaching terms, they were the north face of the Eiger - a crowd of cheeky wee devils - but after a few sessions, they were a delight to teach.

They were competent mechanics, inquisitive and humane. At a big meeting quite recently, I met one who is now on the board of British Telecom in Scotland. One never generalises about such groups, but tries to understand them. When they were out on their bikes, those boys delivered telegrams and, in a Scottish working home in the 1960s, telegrams meant only one thing. So they had to listen and comfort. Under the razzmatazz, they had the same sort of quiet strength as firemen or carers of old people. It is no wonder that so many of them did well. They emphasised what the great Scottish sociologist, Patrick Geddes, talked about and what Nehru recollected from India: the importance of hand, heart and head in education - Geddes always spoke in triads. That is germane today, because it is important that teachers should ask what they can learn from and about the kids with whom they deal as much as how they can get material over to them.

Way back when I started teaching in the Open University, I came across a line from Thomas Carlyle; "Instruction ... is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes; it has become a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand." That is a damning statement. The Open University could so easily have become a steam intellect society, but that quotation on our desks was a warning sign.

It is important to have rote learning in an educational system - to have 12 times tables; have the value of punctuality dinned into you, as I have this afternoon, and to know how to spell. Because those things do not demand imagination, we forget about them; they come out automatically. It is important that we should grasp that. That said, we should also have the empathy - the broad culture - to make sense of the tsunami of facts that descends on us along the internet, which is a tremendous tool and a terribly bad master.

It is important to adapt to situations and not to impose a dogmatic method, which is why I have been intrigued by different experimental teaching methods, such as the storyline method that has been pioneered at Jordanhill College in Glasgow by Steve Bell and others. It concentrates language and reading fluency around a particular practical theme, making the students expand their vocabulary and text capability to cope with it as they progress and master it.

Secondly, we must gear ourselves up to tackle the issues and skills that we need to co-operate with, as much as compete against, other European Union countries. I say to Margo MacDonald that the issue of languages does come up in that context. I was informed at a meeting of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee that even a big German concern uses English at its board meetings. The man who told me that was a banker, who comes from a profession to which the words "lack of transparency" automatically attach themselves. One must bear it in mind that when it comes to manufacturing cars or engines, the language of command - the shop talk - over much of Europe is no longer English: it is German, or it may even be Chinese.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

No. I might take one when I get into the final straight. We are, in fact, trying to do something about the language situation that I described. In my region of Fife, there is a project at St Marie's Roman Catholic primary school in Kirkcaldy called the great renewable energy race, which stresses gaining theory through practice, with pupils building and testing their own model vehicles that are driven by renewable power sources. They do not learn about just renewables from that hands-on approach. They work in co-operation with European primary schools, so the children use modern communications technology, thus boosting their language and computer skills, and they learn about other cultures. That is timely, since along the coast from Rosyth to Levenmouth there is a possible rebirth of industry as the Forth array of offshore wind farms takes shape. We require young people with an interest in and knowledge of renewable technologies to install more in the future.

We also require a time out of education. Where I taught for many years, students would go into the community and work in social work and other professions for a year, before coming back into the university. They would start university with that philosophical grounding that we used to be taught in Scottish universities.

We must realise that we are not the only players in the business of energy, although it is a tremendous potential boost. There is an alternative, predictable source in North Africa, where the Desertec project could make the desert bloom again. With that in mind, the faster and better we teach our children in the areas and means that I described, the better we will be equipped to face the new technological and social future.

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