Leaders: Greater language skills key to breaking trade barriers

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IN BUSINESS-SPEAK, skills are often divided into two types – hard and soft skills. The hard varieties range from knowing how to use a welding torch to adding up a balance sheet.

The softer types encompass 
everything from how to make people feel welcome to being able to speak a foreign language. But both sets of skills are equally vital if Scotland is to have a workforce and, hence businesses, that prosper.

Modern communications mean that, for a business in Glasgow say, Beijing is not that much further away than Birmingham. But between here and Beijing is the intimidating barrier of language, which deters all but the most resolute even though – once the barrier has been penetrated – the opportunities for trade may be infinitely greater.

The Scottish Government, thankfully, now intends that all schoolchildren should learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue. Good, but this goal looks unrealisable given the current state of language teaching in schools.

A survey by the British Council has revealed not just a disturbing lack of capacity for language teaching in schools, but also that these meagre resources are dwindling. The facts speak for themselves. In 2001, nearly all 
pupils studied a language up to the fourth year of secondary education, but by 2010 only two-thirds did. The number of foreign language assistants, who bring not just a native handling of a foreign language into the classroom but also a cultural understanding, had dropped from 285 in 2005 to 59 in 2011.

Some of this is almost certainly due to budget pressures. When money is tight, education authorities naturally will seek to preserve their core full-time professional teaching staff and may sacrifice part-time assistants in order to do so.

Parental pressures may also have something to do with it. When jobs are in short supply, parents may feel that their children may be better-placed to secure employment when they leave education if they have hard skills for which there is a more obvious demand than for softer proficiencies. This may particularly be the case with language skills given that English is now an international language and it is increasingly rare to find a corner of the world where no-one speaks it.

But that is a false justification for linguistic laziness. Part of the reason why countries such as 
Brazil, Russia, India and China have fast-growing economies is that businesspeople make a point of understanding English (and German and Spanish) so that they can sell much more easily into the global marketplace.

Scots pride themselves on 
having an export-orientated economy, but the fact is that exports are not growing at the rate they need to. And if Scots do not equip themselves with the tools to speak with their customers, then Scotland will continue to be at a competitive disadvantage.

Public sector cuts don’t add up

Had historian and satirist C Northcote Parkinson been around today, he would surely have added this to his famous list of laws governing the behaviour of bureaucracies: the more jobs that are cut from any public organisation, the more the total salary bill rises.

Of course, all the political gloss surrounding any bureaucratic reorganisation is that the prime purpose is to produce a slimmer and more efficient machine

that better serves the public. If that also happens to end up being done at less cost to the taxpayer, that is a fine thing but it is not, you understand, the main


Everyone knows, in these days of restricted public finances, that this is nonsense. If the money had been flowing still, merging Scotland’s eight police forces into one would have been the last thing on the Scottish Government’s mind. The fact is that the changes to Scotland’s police forces are driven by saving money.

New deputy chief constables, all of whom at £169,000 a year will earn only slightly less than the former Strathclyde chief constable’s job pulled in, are being appointed. They will earn more than all the other current chief constables. Granted, these posts may well be more demanding and have responsibilities that are more widely spread across all Scotland, rather than in one region. But unlike the job of chief constable, they do not have the burden of having to carry the can when something goes wrong.

But from the outset, one of the most visible savings mooted was where we had eight chief constables we would have one. But it emerges that, in wages terms anyway, we now have five (or actually six given the figures). Not a good sign.