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Learning ministers

The Scottish Executive is to be congratulated. Now there's a thing in these turbulent times. For years it seemed the only idea in town, as far as post-school education was concerned, was "university for all". Well, not quite. But the relentless emphasis on ever-widening access to higher education made it seem that way.

Wendy Alexander, the Lifelong Learning Minister, has now grasped the importance of the alternative in her latest policy statement released this week (page six). Scotland's problem is not the production of high-quality graduates or even the output from the schools but our lack of skilled craftsmen and technicians. Last week's warning from a North Ayrshire engineering boss about the extreme shortage of good engineers is a timely warning.

Ms Alexander is certainly not the first politician to diagnose the deficiency; indeed her colleagues south of the border gave a nodding recognition to the problem last week with the announcement of vocational GCSEs. But workplace training must be seen as important for its own sake, and there is a dichotomy. Ms Alexander herself has launched the slogan "the better the learning, the better the earning". Theunmistakable message is that graduates do better. This is not calculated to embed the value of shopfloor skills. Academic drift cannot be allowed to become the name of the game.

None the less there appears at last to be a national strategy coupled with serious money, after years of talking about the problem. The careers companies will start serving Scots of all ages, Learndirect Scotland will stimulate and aim to meet their training or learning needs and the enterprise networks will refocus on the skills that are required with the help of the new Future Skills Unit. That ought to be a recipe for success. The enterprise companies have been told firmly that they can no longer freelance and must work alongside the education agencies, which will be music to the ears of the further education colleges in particular.

The one caveat we would enter is that a distinction must still be retained between education and training. The school years clearly cannot avoid the challenge of employability but they also have to be about more than that, as indeed lifelong learning should be. If that message is absorbed, then we really will have a national strategy.

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