CLASS DIVIDE; EXCLUSIVE: HEAD OF SCOTLAND'S 600,000 TRADE UNIONISTS SLAMS LABOUR ON EDUCATION Labour put schools at the heart of their new campaign But new union chief insists their priorities are all wrong.
THE new leader of Scotland's trade unions has attacked Labour's flagship education policies in his first week in the job.
Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Unions Congress, says they are wrong to put all their efforts and money into schools.
And he called for a radical overhaul of the university system, which would see people paid to study for degrees while working.
Smith's criticism will stun Labour bosses, who are more used to a cosy relationship with the STUC.
He said: "If you listen to Jack McConnell and the Executive - and some employers' organisations - you would think the thing we needed to do was sort out the school system.
"Employers talk consistently about dealing with the failures of the Scottish education system. That is ' absolute nonsense.
"I'm not saying that on occasion it does not fail individuals, but collectively our education system performs very well by international standards. To suggest the reason why we have problem with skills is because of school education is wrong."
The First Minister has made education Labour's top priority going into next year's Scottish Parliament elections.
He says he will raise the school leaving age to 18, open 100 skills academies - where kids will be taught trades like plumbing and joinery in place of French and Biology - and create science academies for the brighter kids.
Chancellor Gordon Brown has also made schools his priority, announcing another pounds 36billion over the next four years, including an extra pounds 300million for Scotland.
But Smith, a former ambulance driver who now represents 630,000 members of 43 affiliated unions, says to compete with new economies like China and India, we need to spend more on training and retraining people in work.
Smith wants businesses to take young people straight from school and pay to put them through university while they work.
He said: "Most of my pals left school at fourth year, after their 'O' grades and were recruited by companies, who were then paying them to go to college or university part time.
"They aren't doing that any more. The route for a lot of people is to go to university and be recruited after graduation when they still need training to do the job.
"I'm not saying we should not be encouraging people to participate in higher education, I'm saying we need jobs for people who want to take a different route and employers need to be prepared to respond to that.
"That's what a lot of people want, they don't want to go to university for four years and come out with a whole lot of debt behind them."
Smith said: "There is no funding for someone who wants to do a degree part-time while working. That is just daft and it needs to be changed.
"That is where the government should be investing."
mailfile Life and times of the STUC boss
Grahame Smith, 47, lives in Bishopbriggs near Glasgow with LIz, a nurse, and their two sons Alastair, 13 and Andrew, 11.
He comes from a family steeped in trade union tradition, his mum was a shop steward and his dad a union branch secretary.
He graduated from Strathclyde University with an honours degree in economics and industrial relations.
His first job after graduation was as an ambulance driver, where he became the union representative for hospital porters and drivers in the public sector union NUPE.
He went to work for the STUC in 1987 as an assistant general secretary and was promoted to deputy general secretary 10 years ago.
He is a proud Rangers fan and season ticket holder at Ibrox.
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'We need jobs for people who want to take a different route' Grahame Smith, STUC
Fighter: New STUC leader Grahame Smith who has attacked the schools policy in his first week in the job