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Learning to Change: Graeme Dey is ready to reform higher and further education in Scotland

Photography by Anna Moffat for Holyrood

Learning to Change: Graeme Dey is ready to reform higher and further education in Scotland

“I suppose I’m the example of #NoWrong Path, in a way,” Graeme Dey says. Because it was failure that set the young Dey on the track to success. 

Now, as minister for higher and further education, he’s preparing for a series of reforms aimed at ensuring all Scots get to where they want to be. “I can’t think of anything more important than getting it right for young people,” he says.

We’re speaking shortly after exam-results day, when more than 144,000 young people received their grades and social media feeds were studded with the hashtag and personal stories of how ex-learners ended up in their jobs. As the holder of a portfolio that takes in youth employment, apprenticeships and community learning and development, Dey is now invested in where each of these young people goes next. And he remembers well the anxiety of not knowing which path to take. “I can entirely empathise with people,” he says. “I would say to young people, don’t let it get you down; you get there in the end.”

A prospective electrical engineer, the young Dey had set himself up with a place on a course in his home city of Aberdeen – that is, until he “flunked” his maths Higher. Half-way through a resit he realised he “wasn’t going to pass” and started to wonder, “what am I going to do?”.

He confided in a family friend who worked at Aberdeen University and had access to a new careers advice computer programme, and went along to try it out. “To my utter astonishment, the number-one career that came up was journalism,” he recalls. “I had edited the school newspaper for two years, but that hadn’t crossed my mind.”

Dey broke the news to his parents and had sat the entrance exam for a training course in Edinburgh when a job came up at publishers DC Thomson. “I plumped for the job and got a 30-year career on the back of it,” Dey says. “It was a brilliant training ground.”

That career saw keen golfer Dey pick up vocational skills as he worked up the ranks to become sports editor of the Dundee Courier, after initially proving his worth by writing football reports. He took voluntary redundancy in 2010 and threw himself into what would be a successful election campaign as SNP candidate for Angus South the following year. He soon learned his journalism background would earn him no favours with the media when he tipped off a former colleague about a news story and was “airbrushed out” of the published report. A councillor from a rival party was quoted instead of parliamentary hopeful Dey. “It was a quick lesson that I had crossed the divide, as it were,” he says.

Dey and I meet to discuss the Withers review and what comes next. Written by former Scotland Food and Drink boss James Withers, it recommends major structural changes to the delivery of skills. Functions from Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the Scottish Funding Council and, potentially, the Student Awards Agency Scotland should be combined into a new single funding and delivery body, it found, and responsibility for national skills planning should go to the Scottish Government. Commissioned by ministers, the review also calls for reform of SDS to create a new body with a “singular focus on careers advice and education” and for enterprise agencies to have a “clear remit” for supporting businesses. 

There is “confusion” around the current landscape, Withers found, and a need for a “single, coherent narrative for what a successful post-school learning system looks like”. There is “a lot to celebrate” in what already exists, he said, but, outlining his case for a “substantial” shift to ensure the system is “fit for the future”, added: “I do not believe that the current landscape is working to best effect for those who use and rely on its services.”

The review was published at the beginning of June and before the month was out Dey had announced that the Scottish Government would act, developing a new national funding model for colleges, universities, apprenticeships and training and undertaking “widespread reforms” across the sector. Responsibility for skills planning will move to the Scottish Government and the new national qualifications body, which will succeed the Scottish Qualifications Authority, will oversee all publicly funded post-school qualifications, apart from degrees. “Globalisation, technological advances, the impact of the pandemic and demographic changes all point toward the need for change,” Dey said at the time. “The skills landscape must fit the needs of the people of Scotland so that everyone can fulfil their potential and contribute to our society, economy and place in the wider world.”

“I recognised very much some of the direction of travel he was setting,” Dey says of Withers. “There’s a fundamental opportunity here to do something different and more effective and we need to get it right.”

While the intention has been set, no timetable for change has followed. “I’m well aware that there are people out there who are questioning how serious we are about implementing the changes that James has recommended, and there is no doubt that some of those will likely require legislation – primary and secondary legislation – and of course that takes time,” he says. However, he is keen that the Scottish Government looks at “the changes we can make now; both the substantial changes and smaller ones that are in line with the direction of travel”. Over the last few weeks, he says, he has been “starting to get into the detail of what some of the change needs to be; what we could do to make a big difference”. He is, Dey says, “clearer” on what needs to be done. “One or two people have said, ‘are you not daunted by that? Look at the scale of it’. My view is different.” 

“We can tinker, and it appears to make improvement,” he goes on, but “somewhere down the line there’s a knock-on that hasn’t been anticipated”, and so it’s about well-informed, well-directed movement instead. That means, he says, extensive consultation with everyone from frontline careers advisers to university and college principals. He’s been on tour over recess, visiting these groups and talking to employers. He praises the work on graduate apprenticeships at Glasgow Caledonian University, the success of the Access to Nursing Course at West Lothian College in serving older learners, and the scientific research taking place at Dundee and Strathclyde universities as examples of some of the “unheralded” work going on in the sector. “We’re doing a lot of good things collectively and it could be better – this isn’t about looking at what we do currently and being extremely critical,” he says. “What James has done is looked at it and said ‘how do we need to change to be agile enough to meet future need, which hasn’t been identified?’ It’s about that agility.

“What we have got here is a chance to address concerns people have had for some time.” 

The “we” here includes Cabinet Secretary for Education Jenny Gilruth. The pair have been friends “since way back”, Dey says, and it was Gilruth who stepped into Dey’s shoes when he resigned as transport minister on health grounds in January last year. In his letter to then first minister Nicola Sturgeon, Dey said that despite his “continuing passion” he was “unable now to give this hugely important ministerial role everything it rightly requires and deserves”. “I would describe it as a bit of a perfect storm,” he reflects. “Sometimes you have to be aware enough in a situation to take a practical course of action, and that’s what I did. At the time, a lot of people said nice touching things – ‘that was a brave thing to do’. It didn’t feel like that because I’d analysed the situation in sufficient depth to see that it was right for me to step back.

“That was then, this is now.”

Gilruth was the first person Dey spoke to after being called in to cabinet by Yousaf. “When you get that invitation to meet the first minister, you have no idea what you’re going to be offered. I was aware by that point that Jenny had been appointed to the education brief. I walked out of the meeting and the first person I bumped into was Jenny. We were all big smiles and looking forward to this, and it’s been good. We’re similar type of characters, which is helpful.”

How so? “We both ask a lot of questions, let’s put it that way. I’m sure our officials would vouch for that. When you’re being advised, you should always go, ‘yeah, but what about..?’ We both do that a lot.”

Based in Carnoustie on the Angus coast, Dey would rather swerve the town’s beach for its golf course and regrets that he didn’t get more rounds in over recess. The last series he binged was Tom Selleck cop show Blue Bloods, and he’s a big fan of Star Trek. Kirk is his favourite captain, with an honourable mention for Benjamin Sisko of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The responsibility of leadership is something Dey is thinking about a lot, and he wants to avoid spooking skills and education staff who he knows are “unsettled” about what changes means for them. “I always hesitate to use the ‘reform’ word because for me it conjures images of the Tories and reducing spend. To me, reform is about making the public pound work to best effect.” 

However, Withers has warned that remaking the sector will be “uncomfortable for many people” due to a “lack of consensus”. “My strong advice to ministers is not to shape change based on the views of those with current delivery responsibilities,” he wrote. “Instead, this change requires a ruthless focus on the users of the system; the people of Scotland for whom world-class lifelong learning can be the catalyst to unlock their potential and shape Scotland’s economy and communities.”

But an element of consensus will be needed to take any related legislation through parliament. Dey is confident of his abilities in this regard. “One of the things I bring to this job is I do try to build as much consensus as I possibly can,” he says. “I do think it’s possible to work with parliamentarians from across the chamber.

“I’m not naive enough to think we’ll all be sitting around the table holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but there is an opportunity for agreement.” He recalls his time on the rural affairs committee, on which he said “lifelong friendships” were formed. Late Tory MSP Alex Fergusson, the parliament’s third presiding officer, was one such friend, Dey says, and he differentiates between “the politics of the chamber that the media latch onto” and “what happens away” from there.

He is also out to build “genuine partnerships with the colleges and universities”. In its submission to the Scottish Government’s consultation on post-school education research and skills, Universities Scotland warned that “it is not possible to have a high-performing higher education sector that is substantially under-funded”. “Everybody thinks that it’s underfunded and I have a degree of sympathy for that point,” he tells Holyrood. But during “the most challenging budget situation I have seen in government” the main ask is that “the money we invest works to best effect” to give “the best return possible for young people”.

But not only young people, he emphasises, saying community learning and development is his second priority, after implementing recommendations from the Withers review. “We have people of working age who, because the education system failed them 20, 30 years ago, because school didn’t work for them, have not had the opportunities they should have had. Community learning, when it’s done right, gives them that second chance.”

Addressing this is a “moral imperative”, Dey says, and school leavers who “have not thrived” must not be cut loose. “If we are to do right by these people, we have to improve our community-learning offer.

“We need our colleges to be offering clear pathways for these individuals,” he goes on. “When we have picked them up through community learning and development, some of them will want to or need to go to college and we need those places to be there for them.

“What a fantastic portfolio to be put in charge of,” he reflects. “I really love it.”

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