Alasdair Allan

26th August 2011 at 01:00
As the Scottish Government publishes a review of post-16 education and research into public attitudes to Gaelic, the Learning and Skills Minister speaks to TESS about the future of further education and a multilingual Scotland

As skills minister, can you tell us what's being done for 16-year- olds who come out of school without jobs and are ineligible for Jobseekers' Allowance?

With the review of 16-plus education going on, it's an enormous question, but I'd say it's going to involve being a bit more imaginative about things. It's going to involve apprenticeships in a big way. I'm not signed up to the Conservative position of reducing the school leaving age, but we have to recognise that Scotland's education system historically has been good for people in the academic stream, as it used to be called, but hasn't perhaps engaged as fully as it could with people who don't want to do that.

For colleges it's a time of funding cutbacks, mergers, mass redundancies and cuts to certain subjects. Which areas, if any, will the Government protect?

Scotland's income from the UK Government has been cut in the block grant by pound;1.3 billion. This portfolio, like others, is going to experience pain as a result. We clearly view education as a priority, as our commitment to free higher education indicates. When it comes to the college sector, we have to ensure we get more out of it for the limited resources we have; there's no doubt the sector will have to work more efficiently. I've indicated that I think that means there's going to be a bit more accountability for the way money's used.

So which areas should be protected in colleges, and which may have to suffer?

Obviously we haven't had our budget yet, but we have to ensure colleges do what they're good at and provide real opportunities for our young people, without being a prisoner of structures from the past.

How do you see that change panning out?

The colleges at the moment are largely funded by the public purse, but it's not always obvious what the lines of accountability are, in terms of the way colleges are governed, and that is certainly a debate that is going to have to be had.

Do we have too many colleges?

I'm not going to say that. All I will say is that we shouldn't be confined to structures from the past.

Some people feel the Government focus is more on HE than FE. How would you respond?

I'm in no doubt that Scotland's economy and society depend extremely heavily on the college structure we have. Our colleges are good; they are getting people into work, and in many cases doing things that universities have never thought about, in their relationship with the world of work and their commitment to bringing in people from backgrounds who may never, without a prompt, have considered education beyond school.

What other big ambitions do you have for this five-year parliament?

I'm very keen to develop a Scottish studies strand within the curriculum, and we've made very substantial commitments to apprenticeships in the manifesto - 25,000 of them. I want to make sure we have meaningful apprenticeships that get people into the world of work.

On a more personal note, you're from the Borders, far from Gaelic's heartland, and yet you're fluent in Gaelic. How long did that take you?

I was 10 when I decided I would like to learn Gaelic, when I saw the first Gaelic programmes on telly. I started learning it when I was 18, as part of my university course, although I've only really been using it in daily life since I moved to the Western Isles six or seven years ago.

Supporters of Scots feel it is poorly funded compared with other languages, including Gaelic. How do you feel about that?

I'm passionately committed to both. It's pretty clear that Scots and Gaelic are not in danger from each other. If they disappear, it will be at the behest of a big international language called English. Both lobbies now realise there is absolutely nothing to be gained from trying to create any tension between them. It is true that Gaelic has certain things at present that Scots doesn't, but that's largely because Gaelic has been actively militating for them in an organised way for longer.

Aberdeen University's Kenneth MacKinnon looked at media coverage of Gaelic over a year, and found it was often mocking and inaccurate. Is that something you see?

There's certainly some truth in what he's saying. My impression is that the mockery of Gaelic is in decline. I would say most people in Scotland have either a positive or completely non-committal view. Yes, you do still find letters to papers from those who don't want people to speak Gaelic, but these are usually the same ones who don't want people to speak French or Chinese either.

The SNP supports the "1+2" model which encourages people to learn two additional languages other than their native tongue, and indicated that Gaelic could be one of them. Shouldn't we concentrate on international languages that will help in the jobs market?

That is what the vast majority will be doing, but all the evidence is that children who grow up bilingually - whether it's Gaelic, Urdu or French - find it infinitely easier to learn a third or fourth language. Bilingualism from an early age actually promotes what you're talking about.


Born: Edinburgh, 1971

Education: MA in Scottish language and literature, Glasgow University, 1994; PhD in Scots language, Aberdeen University, 1998

Career: Church of Scotland senior media relations officer; writer for various newspapers and 2006 Gaelic Journalist of the Year; SNP National Secretary 2003-06, Western Isles MSP since 2007.

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