Probing for the skills that will enrich Scotland plc;People;Profile; Greg Bourne

26th January 1996 at 00:00
"I'm a beneficiary of one of your first export industries," declares the latest businessman to be asked to cast an eye over the Scottish education and training system.

Greg Bourne, the Australian-born director from BP, is chairman of the Scottish Skills Forum, which was constituted last month and had its first meeting last week. He is clearly anxious to establish his credentials, although he has not so far claimed a Highland grannie. but he says the University of Western Australia, his alma mater, was founded by Scots and the state's education system was modelled on that of Scotland.

Mr Bourne has progressed in barely 20 years from humble researcher to director and general manager of BP Exploration, via the oilfields of Abu Dhabi, Dallas, Shanghai, Aberdeen and Australia.

Inevitably, however, he will be rather more preoccupied with the shortcomings than the successes of the Scottish system in the period to October, when he is due to deliver the forum's report to the Secretary of State.

"We are not going to create tomes of paper," he promises and adds in the global business-speak that seems an effortless part of his vocabulary: "We want to make the rubber hit the road, in good oilfield terms, and capitalise on what we have got."

What we have got, Mr Bourne says, are adults whose "mind-set" needs to be retuned so they create a demand for training. "We have to invest in the people of Scotland plc," he says. "We have no choice."

Since training is now virtually a branch of the economy, he believes appropriately that improving the nation's skills should not be driven by the "supply side". Training should reflect the needs of employers and individuals. He has already identified a particular challenge to instil the demand for education and training into parents so they pass the thirst on to their children. This, he says admiringly, is the Singapore culture.

Mr Bourne, who impressed colleagues at the forum's first meeting with his "can do" approach, speaks the vigorous language of change and challenge. This must have made him an ideal member of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit in Downing Street, where he was an adviser on energy and transport from 1988-90.

His current advisory role will take its cue from his belief that "there is an industrial and cultural revolution going on". Technology, the labour market and learning technologies are all changing, Mr Bourne suggests, and any skills strategy must respond.

Mr Bourne's interest in the subject is partly serendipity and partly professional background. He had already been working with the two national enterprise agencies on the training needs of small and medium-size businesses "without realising that the light bulb was about to go off". Mr Bourne is also aware of what he calls a "fundamental restructuring" in large companies which has major implications for the skills revolution.

"In the 1960s and 1970s," he says, "huge corporate power meant that innovation was stifled externally because companies were arrogant enough to believe they could do everything in-house. We are now more open to innovation from outside and that means we must have a vested interest in the skills development of small and medium-size enterprises. Alongside this shift, companies' own recruitment and training programmes are changing.

"In the past the tendency was to narrow qualifications so that people became more and more specialised. Now we look to broaden our staff so that they can balance their mastery in technological areas against commercial and behavioural skills."

At this stage, Mr Bourne says, he is open-minded about what if any changes are required in the education and training system. He pays due homage to the three Rs and, as a drilling engineer to trade, to numeracy in particular. His experience has been that many children are scared of acquiring new skills in numeracy. "They are blocked numerically and it's hard to unblock it," he says.

His message that "education is not a series of end-states but a process" is likely to be prominently advanced in this European Year of Lifelong Learning. But the "blockage" in Scotland perhaps has more to do with the attitude described by Frank Pignatelli, Strathclyde's director of education and a member of the Scottish Council for Education and Training Targets: "that we would rather have an unemployed doctor, accountant and lawyer in the family than see them go into business".

That should put Mr Bourne's own skills to the test.

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