Sandy puts economic survival on curriculum

SANDY PATON has a big problem and regretfully he'll have to disappoint some hopefuls.

But it's a situation he's happy with because it means people care and will hopefully be step one in a process that will prevent a bigger future predicament when it comes to Scotland's economic skill base.

Mr Paton describes Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce's newly-created Education Policy Group (EPG) as "a very bold initiative".

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As chairman, he has the job of establishing its personnel, having been inundated with interest from members of both the business and education communities, as well as training providers.

Its aim is to help establish a cycle of dialogue and informed views on how to shape Scotland's education sector to equip business with the type of skilled workforce that we will need in a knowledge-driven global economy.

"Many of the Chamber's members have said they want to be part of this group and academia at all levels has shown interest. My big problem is forming a group of a manageable size," says Mr Paton, a freelance business consultant. "But it's a very pleasant problem for me to have."

Today will see the inaugural meeting of the EPG in investment manager Baillie Gifford's Edinburgh boardroom.

While pressing the Scottish Executive to hear the voice of business on the matter of what it can do to help supply the skills pipeline, it will also push business to up its offering.

A stream of high-profile inward investment failures, most recently Lexmark, have focused Executive thinking on a "Smart, Successful Scotland" agenda, aimed at making Scotland a country that sells its knowledge rather than its sweat.

But a worrying drop-off in the crucial disciplines of science and maths by school pupils could jeopardise that plan if action is not taken soon.

"One of the issues the Chamber has raised is that there seems to be a problem with maths and science," says Mr Paton. "They're subjects with large drop-out rates, but they're the ones that will make for the Smart, Successful Scotland the Executive talks about. If we don't get people coming through in these subjects, it's unlikely to happen and we won't be able to compete."

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He adds: "We need to create pictures in people's minds about what they can achieve as individuals and what they can contribute collectively."

The EPG intends to do more than just plug certain holes. It aims to set in train a more cohesive national education framework to help prepare Scotland for the economic demands and challenges of the future, including a better focus on entrepreneurialism.

HAVING spent time with Bank of Scotland's small business banking and played a key role in Scottish Enterprise's business birthrate strategy, Mr Paton has extensive experience of business creation.

"A lot of people come out of school and college and get a good job but they've no real knowledge of business. A lot of them are put off starting their own small business or joining an SME [small or medium sized enterprise], so they join a larger business because it feels safer," notes Mr Paton.

He is also of the opinion that there's confusion and lack of unity within Scotland's schools sector.

Scotland has no national curriculum, with lessons determined by local authorities.

"There's mixed messages coming out both in different parts of the country and even in different schools in the same area. There needs to be more co-ordination when it comes to getting things onto the school curriculum," Mr Paton insists.

To that end, he sees the Chamber attempting to co-ordinate the "large and knowledgeable voice" of its 1400 members with those in the education sector and take their views to the Executive.

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"We're not going to be banging the table; we're there to add to the debate and give constructive views on what business and education thinks should be happening and to keep the dialogue going," says Mr Paton.

Among the things business can contribute is making itself more accessible to school-leavers, through placements and more school visits by business leaders. A greater availability of bursaries and scholarships could also prove valuable, Mr Paton believes.

"Business has to take a longer term view about where its workforce of the future will come from," he says. "It is hoping to take, therefore it's only right that it gives something back."