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Scottish Apprenticeship Week: Q&A with MSPs on skills and apprenticeships

Scottish Apprenticeship Week: Q&A with MSPs on skills and apprenticeships

MSPs: Liz Smith, Mary Fee, Tavish Scott, Ross Greer and George Adam - Image credit: Holyrood

How would you solve the digital skills gap that businesses are facing?

Liz Smith (Scottish Conservatives): Within the structure of a fast-changing economy, skills development and training throughout an individual’s working life career will be increasingly important. There needs to be a greater focus not just on building digital skills at an early age, but on reskilling too. With businesses increasingly pressed financially, there is evidence that there has been a reduction in training and development spending for staff in SMEs.

Mary Fee (Scottish Labour): To prepare our children and young people for the fast-changing world of work, Scottish Labour will establish a nationwide initiative to introduce first-class education in information technology and computer coding in all of our schools. We will fund primary school teachers to go on a basic coding course to empower them to introduce it to pupils as early as possible and introduce an annual national schools coding competition to showcase Scottish talent and further develop the skills of the future.

Tavish Scott (Scottish Liberal Democrats): The key lies in training and developing the digital skills of both current employees and those in education. Starting this process as early as possible at school would go a long way to ensuring the next generation has the skills needed to close the digital skills gap. Ensuring STEM skills are incorporated into the curriculum at an early stage, when a child’s worldview is being formed, is important. We have seen recent initiatives to introduce coding to primary school children, and this should be encouraged.

Ross Greer (Scottish Greens): The normalisation of digital devices across every aspect of our lives, including at work, has not translated quickly to education. Financial factors are a major issue given the number of devices required, but it does result in a mismatch between how young people interact with IT in the rest of their lives, where it is entirely normalised, and their education, which is a decade behind. I’m enthusiastic about life skills education such as personal financial management and would like to see digital skills embedded in the personal and social education curriculum. We should aim to develop these skills across the curriculum, though.

George Adam (SNP): Connectivity is the first step for businesses and ensuring they have access to all forms of broadband and 4G technology. Luckily, the Scottish Government have made this a priority. There is also a need for businesses to get support with regards to training to ensure staff can use the latest software and equipment.

How would you encourage more young people, particularly girls, to take up careers in science and technology?

LS: Careers guidance is an important building block, yet provision across Scotland is inconsistent and changes are not always being implemented – as was observed by the review of the ‘Developing the Young Workforce’ strategy. Evidence shows that gender stereotypes around professions are built early in a child’s life. Children need greater awareness of jobs and work from an early age and the sort of guidance that can lead away from stereotyped views of certain employment.

MF: There is no future for Scotland as a low wage, low skill economy. That’s why we have to invest in these skills now, but instead we are seeing teaching jobs being cut under the SNP. SQA figures show that there have been falls in the number of pupils taking science and maths at Higher and a lack of progress among girls taking most STEM subjects. STEM subjects are absolutely crucial for a Scottish workforce that can compete for the jobs of the future. The SNP government should be doing more to encourage young people, and especially girls, to study STEM subjects, but that will be made all the more difficult by hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to schools and local services by the SNP government. That’s why we would stop the SNP cuts to education and use the powers of the parliament to invest in our future.

TS: Young people are already extremely interested and familiar with technology, so the key is to capitalise on that interest and create teaching that exposes young people to science and technology in a way that appeals to them. That should be at the heart of the Curriculum for Excellence philosophy. There is much in the DSYW [Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce] blueprint written by Sir Ian Wood that is especially important in encouraging girls. This positive agenda needs greater leadership and support at all levels throughout education.

RG: Gender stereotypes are established by the age of seven, after that we are undoing damage already done. STEM gender strategies must focus on early years education and training the early years workforce, who are massively overlooked when it comes to this agenda. Leaving it to primary school or later results in a task far more difficult than it needed to be. Taking a wider cultural approach is essential here as well, given this is a cultural issue. Tackling the needless gendering of children’s lives, from toys to clothes to the roles fulfilled by characters on children’s TV or in books, will make a huge difference, as will engaging with parents as early as possible to ensure unhelpful gender stereotyping isn’t coming from the home. Further up the educational ladder, we need to better incentivise STEM subject teaching for women to ensure that positive female role models are there in every school.

GA: It always amazes me how young people end up moving away from the sciences as a subject as they progress through education. We all start off wanting to know how everything works. So I believe it is in the early years that we need to create the foundations for this. At the time when children are asking these questions we need to ignite their interest in science subjects. In many cases, people are motivated by external forces of what is going on in the world around them. When a generation of NASA scientists say that Star Trek and the moon landings inspired them to become more involved in science, then we need to take this motivation into consideration. We are lucky that we live in an age when there are many exciting projects similar to the moon landings happening.  Recently we witnessed the launch of Space X’s Falcon Heavy rocket and their plans to return to the moon and then to Mars, because it is working for the likes of Elon Musk at Space X that will motivate young people to see the sciences as a way to a future career. Currently young people aspire to work for Google or Apple in the IT industry. Many will not make it, but it is that aspiration of excellence that we need.

Should Scotland drop the requirement for all teachers to have a university degree to attract more industry-experienced professionals into teaching?

LS: Teaching is, and should remain, a graduate profession. With regard to potential new entrants to the profession, whether they might come from industry or business, the Scottish Conservatives are keen that any new route into teaching (e.g. a Scottish version of Teach First) has both GTCS and university accreditation in order to maintain and enhance professional standards.

MF: Fast-track schemes into teaching are not the answer and do not work. There is a teacher recruitment crisis in our schools and urgent action is needed to fix it. The most recent statistics available show that under the SNP, Scotland has lost more than 800 STEM teachers – that’s two a week. Our teachers are now amongst the lowest paid and most overworked in the world. No wonder science and maths graduates are choosing other careers. Scottish Labour has called for a restorative pay rise for teachers, and action on workload and career structure. We would also introduce bursaries for teacher training in shortage subjects, beginning with mathematics and physics.

TS: No, Scotland should want great people teaching in every classroom and reduction in the qualifications necessary for teaching would be a retrograde step. Young people in schools also benefit from teachers with skills beyond just a professional experience in their subject.

RG: I am proud of Scotland’s teaching profession and its high standards. Having a degree is central to ensuring that teaching standards remain high and quality is ensured. I do not believe that the current routes into teaching, including the one-year postgraduate degree, are a barrier to getting industry-experienced professionals into teaching. Rather, it is the pay and conditions of the teaching profession, which have deteriorated after years of funding constraints and cuts. The countries which have consistently high attainment also have the most well respected teaching professions, with teachers properly rewarded for their efforts. This is what we need to address in order to attract industry-experienced professionals.

GA: No. Having gone through the process with my own children and with my granddaughter about to start school in the next year, I think we should retain the system we have. It gives me confidence that those that we are entrusting our children with have the dedication and discipline that you would not have with a less rigorous system. It is important that we attract people from all types of backgrounds to teaching, but not at the expense of what we already have.

Is the apprenticeship levy working in Scotland?

LS: There is less transparency about how the levy is spent under the Scottish Government’s approach – and no clear link to the employers who fund it. It is positive that this money is being made available by the UK Government, although we did suggest it should entirely be spent on apprenticeships. Initiatives like the Flexible Workforce Development Fund are still in their early stages and we will have to see how employers react and if they are getting the training they need.

MF: The majority of the SNP’s Modern Apprenticeships are becoming more segregated by gender. The Skills Development Scotland quango has set a target of reducing the number of roles in which 75 per cent or more of workers are of one gender. But these roles are actually becoming more segregated, despite SNP promises. Young people should not be pigeon-holed into particular roles because of their gender. In addition, there are concerns that the apprenticeship levy is a pilot and has a cap of £10,000 per business. We need to make sure that every young person can access an apprenticeship or other high-quality opportunity, and support reskilling for older workers. That can only be done by properly investing in our apprenticeship schemes.

TS: It is not clear what the levy has done as yet to either increase the number or the quality of apprenticeships. As there was no consultation prior to the policy’s announcement, then a parliamentary enquiry into its effectiveness would be useful. In many cases, it appears to cost companies and organisations money without actually increasing the number of apprenticeships. Furthermore, the Scottish Government has said they will spend their share of the levy more flexibly than other areas of the UK, so in the end, much of the levy may end up not even benefitting those undertaking apprenticeships.

RG: As apprenticeships are clearly of benefit to businesses, the apprenticeship levy is a fair way to raise the revenue to fund them. We should look at ways of expanding revenue raised for apprenticeships to ensure that all businesses have a means to develop the skilled workforce they need. The levy is a step towards that, but we know more apprenticeships are needed and the largest businesses are more than capable of making a greater contribution. We must also ensure that apprentices are paid the living wage. The current minimum wage for apprentices of £3.50 an hour is less than half the rate required to live above the poverty line.  

GA: It must be as the Scottish Government are using their share to pay some of the costs for delivering 30,000 Modern Apprenticeships by 2020.

What is the most important skill you possess and how did you get it?

LS: I have acquired the ability to outstare my children, which is a pretty useful skill on occasion!

MF: I would have to say that the most important skill I possess is communication. This was essential when working as a shop steward and it is where I developed my communication skills. My experiences as a shop steward have been of great service since becoming an MSP, particularly where working with constituents and listening in detail to their concerns.

TS: An ability to listen. That came naturally, but it is a skill I must never forget.

RG: Public speaking, gained in secondary school, thanks to a couple of incredibly supportive teachers who ran a debating club (and which no level of automation can replace!). This is a massively underdeveloped skill in our schools and invaluable in professional spheres far outwith the field of politics.

GA: I left school at 16 and worked with my dad in the family engineering business. The idea was for me to follow in my dad’s footsteps and be an electrical engineer. We soon found out that I was more useful in the business and sales environment. So one thing I learned very early on was to think on my feet and be able to change tack quickly when my original plan seemed doomed. That and a confidence in my own abilities are probably my best skills and were gained with my experience in the business world.

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