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Scottish Parliament Speech: National Qualifications (January 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

In recent days, the last lines of a writer who was much concerned with education throughout his life have come to mind:

This is the midnight, let no star
Delude us. Dawn is very far.
This is the tempest long foretold,
Slow to make head, but long to hold.

Those lines came from Rudyard Kipling in 1936, in the aftermath of an economic crash, which we now realise was lesser than the crash that has befallen the western world today, which forces a stock-take, not least of our education resources.

In many respects, what we see in the programme for international student assessment and elsewhere is a credit to Scotland. That is reflected in the performance of our universities and the research breakthroughs that they have made in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and energy, but there is a disturbing gap between such inventive achievement and its application to serial production. That is where the training of, and by, technical manpower - the wee man in overalls with a micrometer in one pocket and a file in another, who, given time, could build an engine - is crucial, and I thank Alex Neil for reminding us about that.

Such men provided an education in the yards and shops of Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and the Clyde. They say that there was a gang in one of the yards containing Alex Ferguson - the other one - Billy Connolly, Bobby Campbell, Gus Macdonald and Jimmy Reid. As one worker observed, such line-ups had not been seen much since ancient Greece.

In 1989, a young Scottish politician - Gordon Brown - said memorably, and absolutely accurately: "We must manufacture or die." In 1995, about 16 per cent of Scots worked in manufacturing. That percentage is now down to 9 per cent. That fact affects the sort of practical and adaptive education - of the type I mentioned - that people get.

The baccalaureate is a key option. As someone who has taught the products of the baccalaureate tradition in Europe, I recognise the pedagogical logic that makes connections between disciplines and I know how rapidly it can form a usable synergic world view. We should therefore open ourselves to co-ordinated educational co-operation, as well as technical co-operation, with the countries and regions in the European Community that we need to finance and construct our renewable power plants and infrastructure.

I speak from 42 years' experience at the chalkface - or do I? In 1969, I was thrown in at the multimedia deep end when I had to organise the final industrialisation and culture module of the Open University's foundation course in the humanities. That was a professor's task on a junior lecturer's salary - Walter Perry knew his economics. I had learned by going through a bac of sorts - the bunching of subjects under the old 1960s highers system and the co-ordination with the first year at university - and it worked overall. Bunching history, philosophy, mathematics and languages had a powerful social logic. My academic results were not good at that stage - in fact, they were dodgy. Forming a profile from those demanding subjects is extremely difficult. I scraped into university, although I received a good second chance with the old bursary competition and some superb university teaching. That left me with the question whether testing in disparate subjects in which the candidate is supposed to be good is a real measure of potential. Is it not better to tackle something difficult and to make a landing on new territory?

We need rigour and a system. Yes, we even need learning by rote - Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybook Headings" - because in maths and languages, much information and technique simply must be hard-wired into our system so that we do not even have to think about it. Think languages. Think computer languages. No kid would thank anyone for advice to learn about software systems through empathy. Such information must be memorised deep in the brain. However, there must then be imagination and experiment. The Germans call that Spielraum, and they got the idea from Scotland's Adam Ferguson. It is the educational tradition of Robert Owen, A S Neill and Kirkcaldy's own R F Mackenzie, who was a great educator. In its updated and digitised version - a plug follows - it is what Scotland's Pat Kane, who is a rock singer, savant and my master in all such matters, calls his play ethic.

There are two other requirements. One is getting out of school - not to take a gap year, but to see how society works. I recommend something that is comparable to the German social year - soziales Jahr - in which students do social work with old people, retarded kids and the like, which gives them academic credits, cash and a broader social awareness.

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