McConnell places education at heart of his 20-year plan

Key quote

"There is not a country in the world where everything is good or one where everything is bad. We needed to establish a rounded view of Scotland from afar in order to home in on the areas that we need to change." - JACK MCCONNELL, FIRST MINISTER

Story in full THE Scottish Executive must increase spending on education over the next two decades if Scotland is to combat poverty and inequality, and compete in the global marketplace, Jack McConnell, the First Minister, said yesterday.

Unveiling the results of a research project which identified the challenges Scotland will face by 2025, he also hinted that these objectives could be achieved only with a fundamental reform of the education system.

Mr McConnell was speaking after the Executive published a 130-page document showing how Scotland compares with other countries in areas ranging from education and health, to the economy and crime.

He claimed it showed that Scotland compared "very well" internationally on some indicators, was mid-ranking on others and did poorly on a few - mainly health and crime.

But in an effort to prompt debate on the future direction of a devolved Scotland, the First Minister highlighted education as the means by which young people could be taken out of poverty and Scotland's growing population of older people could make a lasting contribution to the economy.

In a speech at Stirling University, where he was a student nearly 30 years ago, Mr McConnell warned that "above all else" learning was the key to Scotland's strategy for the future. "It is through education and life-long learning that we can best deal with our inequalities and wasted human potential and secure the advantage that we will need in a world of change and tough competition," he said.

Scotland needed to "think bigger than we have ever thought before" and consider "the nature of learning; the way we do it; the scale of what is delivered". The First Minister went on: "That may mean that, as a society, we invest a greater share of public expenditure not just on schools education but on learning throughout life.

"It may mean significant change in the way services are managed and delivered, and it may mean expansion at different points of the system."

Mr McConnell said: "My vision for a Scotland most able to influence and inspire over the next 20 years is a vision of a country better educated than all our competitors."

He said Scotland would be "a country where postcode of birth doesn't equal poverty of ambition", where "failure of parents doesn't equal frailty of children" and where "being born into deprivation doesn't mean that you are forever deprived of a life".

He also warned of the need for changing attitudes towards the elderly in a country where one in six people will be over 70 by 2025. More people over the age 50 set up businesses than those under 25, he added.

The First Minister said: "I want attitudes to ageing to change. I want employers, voluntary organisations, schools and universities to think about the opportunities that older people offer.

"I can imagine a world where older Scots entrepreneurs are leading the way in providing the products and services that their generation requires - using skills developed over a lifetime. Perhaps, if we apply our wit and entrepreneurial spirit, our compassion and foresight, our older population could be one of our strongest assets for the future."

The "Strategic Audit 2006" research showed that, in education, Scotland's 15-year-olds had above-average results in reading, maths and science, while participation in higher education was above the average for Europe and for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Scotland produced the highest number of academic papers per head of population of any country in the world.

Outlining what he considered to be the positive results of the project, Mr McConnell said Scots could be "relatively certain" of accelerating technological change, an increasingly knowledge-based economy, rising employment and growing incomes.

There would be persistently low birth rates and a population living longer but not necessarily healthier, with more people also expected to live on their own.

However, he warned: "While Scotland has become healthier, the gap in life expectancy between the most and least affluent communities of Scotland could continue to widen.

"And we can expect to see a continuation of growing problems associated with prosperity and increased consumerism. Alcohol abuse, childhood obesity and diabetes are on the rise, and more of us, particularly young people and children, are experiencing stress-related disorders and mental health problems."

In a later interview, Mr McConnell was asked if he stuck by his claim that Scotland was "the best small country in the world". He said he hoped it instilled "confidence in young people in Scotland that they can believe in their country and believe in themselves, that they can know Scotland has a great history and is still a great country today".

In his lecture, he said it would be missing the point to "pick elements from parts of the audit in order to paint a picture of overall failure in Scotland".

"There is not a country in the world where everything is good or one where everything is bad," he said. "We needed to establish a rounded view of Scotland from afar in order to home in on the areas that we need to change."

A spokesman for Mr McConnell later refused to go into further details of his education plans, which will depend on Labour staying in power after the 2007 election.

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy leader of the SNP, said: "If this was a document produced as a benchmark for a new administration, it would be a worthwhile starting point. What this audit shows is that, after nine years of Labour, our country faces growing health inequalities, slow economic growth and endemic rates of poverty."

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