It’s Time Now to ‘Level Up’ in Scotland Too

Malcolm Offord

Malcolm Offord is Chairman of Badenoch and Co in Edinburgh, investing in Scottish manufacturing SMEs which pursue an export strategy called MISSA – made in Scotland sold abroad. He was born and educated in Greenock and read Law at Edinburgh University before departing to London for a 25 year career in the City. He returned to live in Edinburgh in 2014 and he stood as a list candidate for the Scottish Conservatives for the Lothian region in the Holyrood election of 2021.

We are living in extraordinary times.  The fourth industrial revolution is hurtling towards us at break-neck speed with a fusion of advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering, etc blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds.  All happening at a time when the world has been turned upside down by a global pandemic, by Brexit, by escalating geopolitical tensions between US, China and Russia, and with climate change still posing the greatest threat to our planet. 

I am a Trustee of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and, on our DofE expeditions, we were taught that the only way to quickly pitch a tent for shelter in a howling gale in Glen Etive was to focus on getting the first corner pegged down and then one by one the other three.  We need shelter in Scotland, first to re-set, then to re-build after 14 years of maladministration by the SNP.  The only way to level up is to focus on our four corners.

Our first corner is education.

Let’s start by embracing digital, cognitive learning but in such a way as to embed knowledge into our students; from a very young age their brains are bombarded with information, we need to distil that information overload into knowledge.  Therefore, each student must have access to a lap-top plus tutor and should be tested regularly and then streamed into academic or vocational pathways with both being valued equally highly.  Those from homes where there is less parental support need extra supervision and, when schools do return, we need longer days, longer terms, comprehensive hot breakfast and lunch provision and lots of extra-curricular activities ranging from coding to volunteering.

This requires a revolution in the teaching profession not just in numbers but also in skill-set and philosophy to tailor a bespoke programme for each child in a wide diet of school activities ranging from the academic to the vocational to the pastoral to the extra-curricular.  We must be more flexible and equitable in how we teach at the same time as refusing to compromise on high standards via thorough testing and respected qualifications in each activity alike.  Our challenge is to prepare our children for a world of work where two thirds of the jobs are not yet invented.

Two Scottish entrepreneurs have expressed their frustration with our lack of imagination in education.  In the TV program ‘Teaching Tom’ in 2016, Sir Tom Hunter concluded that we suffer from a ‘one size fits all’ approach and highlighted a need for better leadership and more open minds in Scotland to close the attainment gap.  Lessons learned south of the border, where more than two thirds of state schools are now either a free school or academy, demonstrate that it is possible to achieve outstanding performance in poorer neighbourhoods.  The best success is achieved where control is removed from the dead hand of the local authority and instead is undertaken by ambitious local governors who want the best for their local school and, therefore, are prepared to do things differently.  The academy model has been fiercely resisted by teaching unions in Scotland but Sir Tom asks ‘if it works, why wouldn’t we try it?’  

Meanwhile, Jim McColl created a monster (success) when he established Newlands Junior College in Glasgow in in 2014, a vocational school targeting the 20% cohort of our statutory school leavers who go NEET or worse still, get involved with crime, having struggled in mainstream education. 25 pupils per year aged between 14 and 16 were given active mentoring and vocational skill building and, in a five-year period, Newlands benefitted 125 vulnerable young people by improving their chances of achieving a positive destination from 25% to 75%.  The cost of £15,000 is undoubtedly high against the average pupil state budget of £7,000 but surely this additional cost is more than offset by the benefit to society of converting probable welfare recipients into viable tax-payers and by the very substantial associated savings to the NHS and the criminal justice system? All too predictably, the SNP government refused to fund it any further so after five years so it closed in 2019; apparently, the concept of an ‘independent’ school receiving public money was too much for teaching unions and education officers to accept with local authorities fearing it could be a trail-blazer for ‘English style academies’.  Really?

We need a revolution of innovation, leadership and imagination in education.  This is OUR specialist subject.  We should be ashamed that Scottish state school education has fallen behind England and Wales for the first time in history.  One fifth of our statutory school leavers do not have positive destinations and the lifetime cost to them of this permanent wage scar is enormous as is the cost to the economy in terms of future welfare.  Meanwhile, we have a quarter of a million children living in poverty in Scotland and a good education is their only route out.  The attainment gap has only widened with the impact of COVID and this is a crisis which needs urgent governmental attention.  We are letting down a whole generation of young Scots.  No more socialist dogma.  It’s time now to level up in Scotland with a world-class Universal Education Guarantee.

Our second corner is employment.

It’s time now to end unemployment once and for all. Countless studies show that young people who go NEET at 16 never recover their earning power and often become lifetime recipients of welfare, therefore, it is a rational economic decision for the state to get them into employment from the start.  It’s always easier to get a new better job from an existing job and getting into the working habit needs to start young.  Equally, unemployment does enormous damage to older workers who find themselves de-skilled as the digital revolution leaves them behind.  Every UK citizen should have a life-time learning voucher which allows them back to college to up-skill or re-skill to allow them to switch jobs and sectors multiple times in a lifetime of work.  We Scots have seen the damage done to working class communities and families caused by the deprivation which resulted from the de-industrialisation of Scotland in the Eighties, an unfortunate by-product of a free market economy.   Margaret Thatcher was right that the state could not support unprofitable industries, but she was wrong in the state providing no parachute or Plan B for the workers. 

SO, where are all these jobs going to come from?  Growing our private sector once again will increase employment in Scotland BUT there is a lag effect whereby these new jobs will not kick in immediately.   Therefore, the state should pick up the immediate slack in two ways:

  1. A major state investment in infrastructure and house-building is required to allow our economy to maximise its growth in the 21st century which will create meaningful employment;
  2. The state should create a new status of workers employed to enhance the public good. This pandemic has proven that we value key workers in our communities and that we’re short of them.  So, whether it’s in our hospitals, or our schools, or our community centres, or our public parks and buildings and amenities, there are worthwhile jobs to be done for the benefit of our communities that can give meaningful employment to both young and old. 

It’s time now to level up in Scotland with a Universal Job Guarantee.

Our third corner is housing.

Surely, its time now to end the scourge of homelessness in Scotland? We have 51,365 homeless people including 15,711 children. This urgent need requires only 30,000 additional houses and then add an additional 70,000 homes required for social rent owing to an unaffordable private sector and because of our ageing population.  Combined, this requirement is only 4% of our total households of 2.5m; an eminently achievable target which would cost £1bn per annum over 10 years.  And yet the SNP Finance Minister in her recent budget quietly slipped through a cut of 16% in the Scottish government’s funding of its Affordable Housing Supply Programme reducing annual spend to just £700m.  The SNP are not interested in levelling up in Scotland, only down.  Its time now to level up in Scotland with a Universal Housing Guarantee.

Our last corner is environment.

Its time now to build out the infrastructure required to equip Scotland for the 21st century where we can live and work remotely, cut our carbon footprint and strengthen our communities by boosting our local amenities.  The great myth of urban Britain is exposed by the statistics; urbanisation accounts for 10% in England, 4% in Wales, 3% in Northern Ireland and only 2% in Scotland. Combined, only 7% of the UK is built upon compared with 13% being woodland.  70% of Scots live in the central belt so the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis could easily become one joined up conurbation with high-speed rail and an electric M8.  Reversing many of the Beeching cuts will bring community railways back into remoter regions (the Borders railway has been a major success) and major upgrades to an electric A9 plus northern railways linking Aberdeen to Inverness could significantly reduce journey times.  Add in connectivity to England through HS2/3 and a tunnel from Scotland to Northern Ireland and you should be able to travel around both Scotland and the UK by train, bus or ferry with one simple Oyster card. Meanwhile, superfast broadband will be the saviour of local communities in this digital age. It’s time now to level up in Scotland with national broadband, efficient transport, vibrant local communities and a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 thereby creating a Universal Environmental Guarantee.

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