OCH: Learning

Robin McAlpine – 21 July 2022

The penultimate week of Common Weal’s Common Home campaign brings us to the subject of learning – education, training and research. I have to put my hand up and say that this chapter has never really got me as excited as some of the other sections, and yet it is crucial to everything.

So what is needed? It’s really quite straightforward. We have very specific workforce training requirements that can’t be ducked (but currently are being ducked). We need to adjust the school curriculum to ensure that pupils come out of school with the skills and knowledge they need (both awareness of the science of saving the environment and the skills they need personally to contribute).

We need lifelong learning to assist adults in developing their skills – for example learning to cook using fresh ingredients. And since actually completing the Common Home Plan would be enormously innovative and of much significance globally we need to set up a research institute to capture all the learning (from new technology to data on implementing the measures).

So why don’t I find this as exciting as some of the other parts of the plan? I think it’s partly because I find myself very frustrated that we’re not doing this already, and also that it’s frustratingly easy to understand what we need to do.

There is a real challenge in working out how to decarbonise heating, real creativity in thinking about how a circular economy could work in practice, real inspiration in thinking about the many things Scotland could do with its marine energy potential. But with learning it is simply a matter of getting this done.

Getting school education right should be straightforward. I have a daughter who has just started high school and while Home Economics seems to have improved from my day, there still seems to be an undue focus on millionaire’s shortbread and a lack of focus on starting with the core techniques of cooking. It is remarkable that we think everyone needs to know how to do algebra but not how to make soup.

There are many practical skills that should be seen as part of the ability to be a productive citizen and they’re essential to the long-term task of tackling climate change. But the education agenda often seems still to be defined by mid-market newspapers and their obsessive view on rote learning.

Understanding our environment better is also really important. Could you name the three primary cycles that keep the world’s ecosystems running? I’ll admit I couldn’t have at the start of this project, and yet there isn’t much knowledge more fundamental to the existence of human society. Why doesn’t this crucial science get more profile in the curriculum?

(If you didn’t know, the three cycles are the carbon, water and nitrogen cycles. The carbon cycle sees carbon molecules moving from oceans to land to atmosphere as animals die, plants breath and things burn. The water cycle spreads water round the globe through a process of evaporation and rain. The nitrogen cycle involves nitrogen molecules being absorbed from the air into the soil and back again via pants and animals.)

But we shouldn’t need a climate emergency to wake us up to these issues. They should all be fundamental. Likewise lifelong learning. This was an ever-present issue in the early years of devolution with a key parliamentary committee having the issue in its title. But little came of it and the subject gathers little interest now.

We need to return to the lifelong learning agenda, not just because adults need the same skills that the school curriculum ought to be teaching children but also as an end in itself (we’ll look at the shift to a more ‘participatory society’ next week). 

And when it comes to the question of learning, a Scotland which really tried to implement the Common Home Plan would learn so much, and so have so much to teach others. As a first mover we would gather invaluable data on everything from public attitudes to human behaviours to project delivery to new technologies. Other countries need that data too.

So we should set up a major research hub to monitor all of the work we do, gather all of the data we create and catalogue all the technologies we used which we would make available freely to the world. It would be a major contribution.

Which means yes, a lot of the learning, training and education agenda is pretty straightforward and is really pretty easy to put in place. But to understand just why this is so, so important you have to look at the last element – skills development for project delivery.

Ask yourself this; how easy do you find it to find a joiner, or a plumber, or an electrician? If I then asked you to go and find six thousand of them, how would you get on? Yet that is our challenge.

Throughout the Common Home Plan we tried to give as accurate a picture as we could of the scale of the workforce needed to carry out each element. These are big numbers. We need about 2,000 extra scientists and engineers. We need about 3,000 extra professional and managerial workers, especially in project management.

We need at least 6,000 extra skills tradespeople – joiners, plumbers and electricians. They’ll be retrofitting houses, installing low-carbon heating systems and adapting buildings. We need something approaching another 20,000 semi-skilled workers to support them. We need about the same number of trained land managers (20,000).

And we estimate that there are probably in the order of 50,000 people working elsewhere in the economy who will need to retrain as we make the transition from high-carbon to low-carbon industry. In total that’s over 100,000 people we need to train or retrain in some form or another.

These are not skills which are kicking around the Scottish economy with nothing to do. We can’t magic them out of the air, but equally we can’t get the work done without them. If we’re not doing the training, we’re not doing the work. It’s kind of that straightforward.

So if you wanted a barometer to gauge how seriously or not Scotland is really taking the climate crisis, that is the barometer I’d pick. If we’re not training the people needed to do the work, we clearly aren’t really intending to do the work. Or put another way, you can be certain that we’re committed to serious decarbonisation when we get serious about training the people to do it.

Given that these are jobs on good salaries which are pretty well guaranteed for about 25 years, recruiting people should pose no problems. But there is a time lag. The skilled trades people we start training today won’t be insulating houses or fitting district heating for at least a couple of years. Inaction today means inaction tomorrow.

That’s the strange position the learning and training agenda is in. In and of itself it doesn’t get me all that excited and in my experience it tends not to be the aspect of tackling climate change that activists or scientists want to talk about. But it’s the foundation on which all the rest is built.

It is very difficult to believe that politicians are serious when their solutions are dominated by ‘magical technologies’ that don’t work (Carbon Capture and Storage) but don’t involve basic competencies like mass training of necessary workers. Until that changes, we’re in trouble.

1 thought on “OCH: Learning”

  1. Why are schools’ performance measured in the amount of exams passed? They need to stop teaching pupils how to pass exams and teach more life skills. Not just making soup but also management of money, leisure time, parenting. Critical thinking is a must!

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