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Scottish Parliament Speech: Skills and Vocational Education (June 2007)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I imagine that our whips are relieved that my maiden speech is on education. Although I have been a teacher all my life, I am a frustrated engineer. I was brought up in and around mines, coal cutter works, shipyards and steel works, and although there was not much chance of that continuing after the 1960s, the mark of the skilled man remains.

For a decade after 1969, I was technologising learning in the Open University. People such as Jennie Lee, Walter Perry, Arthur Marwick and a very young me put together the world's first distance-learning institute from planning group to taught students in 18 months - think of that. It was substantially a Scots achievement.

Latterly, I have lived by teaching regional studies to young German economists who, in the words of that notorious Scottish teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, are the crème de la crème from the best economics faculty in Germany. That does and does not make us nostalgic for the Scots past. My students' fathers work for Bosch and Daimler-Benz and are much the same men - wee men with a micrometer in one pocket and a file in the other - as those who ran the Clyde, and colonised the North Sea in the 1970s and 1980s, which was best described then as outer space with bad weather. I wrote about that incredible achievement in my book, Fool's Gold, on North Sea oil.

When thinking about the future of technologised manpower, we must bear it in mind that we have a 30,000-strong engineering workforce out there in oil fields worldwide. They have gone offshore, but they are still skilled Scots. One of our objects must be to bring them back to teach our people here. It is only by using ecological high tech and combining knowledge systems with skilled metal bashing that we will survive - hence my repeated stress on the need to get high technology from Europe back into Scotland. What are the educational implications of that?

Two summers ago I was in the Tübingen clinic for a minor operation. I shared a room with Joachim, a skilled worker from a huge plant called Schwörers on the Swabian Alb. His job might have been right out of the Grimm brothers' tales - he was a woodcutter. However, he was a woodcutter in charge of a sophisticated laser cutter and his work was concerned with programming and adapting an enormously expensive box of tricks to do different jobs every day. He was a grandfather at 49, well educated, he cycled 14 km to work every day, voted for the Greens, got Der Spiegel every week and was well read.

Something about him struck me and gave me my argument for this morning. What language did that German skilled worker speak? He spoke German. The fachsprache, or shop language, of sophisticated engineering in Europe is not English; it is German. English is probably spoken less in that context than previously because Britain and America are no longer industrial nations in the same sense - we do not do the metal bashing that gives Germany its industrial culture. Our universal English is much more restricted than we think - it does not reach the wee man in the overalls. On the red Clyde before 1914, that man's equivalents would have had a good knowledge of French and German. They might have had an unorthodox knowledge of conventional English, but they knew those languages.

We do not get anywhere with the mentality of "shout louder and they will understand" - although that tends to be a southern English mentality. Nor do we adapt by having a purely specialised education that does not extend to understanding and learning from other systems. Joachim benefited from the German dual system of education, which provided from the ages of 14 to 18, half by a firm and half by the education authority, a combination of technical and humanistic education. His wages were low during that period because the surplus was spent on his technical training. That was the best that Europe could provide. At the beginning of this decade, only 9 per cent of young Germans reached 18 without such training. In Scotland, the figure was nearer 25 per cent.

If people want a programme for such education and training, I recommend that they look in a little-known book called Where There's Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain's Future. I wonder how many people in the chamber have read it. It is a sensible book about how manufacturing creates productivity and social gains. Its theme is that we must manufacture or die and we must have appropriate investment and training. Thank you, Gordon Brown. He wrote that book in 1989, but Where There's Greed seems to have long vanished from the Chancellor's memory. Under Gordon Brown, United Kingdom manufacturing declined from being 21 per cent of gross domestic product in 1997 to 15 per cent in 2003. Manufacturing in unfashionable, metal-bashing Germany contributed 24 per cent of GDP in 2004. The numbers of people employed in metal bashing in Britain fell by 30 per cent between 1997 and 2005. Hot money sloshing into the City and takeovers have been the compensation. What results do we see? Think who owns the Clyde shipyards. Think of this morning's headline about the billion-pound bribes.

It gets more exciting. The intelligent German worker who reads Der Spiegel will tell us that we are on the edge of peak oil when world reserves will not match demand. Oil was sold at $10 a barrel during the 1999 elections and we are at $65 a barrel now. Peak oil will take us to $182 for the barrel. Although we can expect great changes in what we have to teach, it will not be so great if we do not have the industry, transportation and, above all, the training to do it.

We have a weather window, as the oil men would say, but only just. That is what has brought me back to Scotland and that is why I am speaking to members today.

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