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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 16 January 2019

Agenda: Response to the Outcome of the Meaningful Vote in Westminster, Portfolio Question Time, Scotland’s Future Economy, Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Highland Youth Survey


Contents


Highland Youth Survey

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-15052, in the name of Gail Ross, on the Highland youth survey. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the outcome of a survey by Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE), which suggests that there has been an increase in the number of young people committed to staying in the Highlands; understands that almost all areas in the region report an increased proportion of young people expressing a commitment to staying, with over 54% expecting to be living in the Highlands in 10 years’ time; acknowledges that fewer school leavers are committed to leaving than in 2015, with that figure falling from 56% to 42%; welcomes the positive view that 70% of participants in the survey considered that those who stayed in the Highlands were lucky to be able to work or study locally; notes what it sees as the important part that young people play in supporting thriving communities; recognises the role of the Highland City Region Deal in delivering projects, such as the Northern Innovation Hub and Science Skills Academy, and commends the work of HIE and the University of the Highlands and Islands, including their role in developing and implementing the Developing the Young Workforce strategy, which it considers has contributed to these positive findings.

17:22  

I thank colleagues for signing my motion and for speaking in the debate.

For a long time, communities in the Highlands and Islands have tried to find solutions to the challenge of depopulation. The loss of our young people has been sorely felt, especially that of school leavers who have been lured by the bright lights of the city. We should, of course, never tell young people that they cannot follow their dreams; that should be positively encouraged. What we need to do is ensure that the Highlands and Islands are an attractive place to live, work and study, and somewhere to come home to.

Although retaining our young people has been difficult in the past, new strategies offering the conditions that they need to thrive in the Highlands and Islands are starting to have effect.

In November, Highlands and Islands Enterprise published the results of its latest survey, “Young People and the Highlands and Islands: Maximising Opportunities”. It has two main aims, which are

“to provide an overview of the evolving attitudes and aspirations of young people in the Highlands and Islands, and how these have changed since 2015”

and

“to identify gaps within the current provision of education, training and employment”

and consider how

“opportunities can be maximised for all young people.”

According to the study, the population of the Highlands and Islands was approximately 470,000 in 2016. However, those aged 15 to 30 comprised only 17 per cent of the population, compared with 21 per cent in the Scottish population as a whole. That deficit is most acutely felt in the Outer Hebrides, Lochaber, Skye, Wester Ross, Argyll and our islands.

The first statistic that jumps out from the report tells us that 55 per cent of young people are committed to staying in the region, which is up from 43 per cent in 2015. There is also evidence of an increase in potential returners: those are people with an interest in, and attraction to, living in the region who are from the Highlands and Islands but who live elsewhere. Sixty-nine per cent of those who stay feel that they are lucky to be able to work or study locally, which is up from 62 per cent in 2015.

Sixty per cent of young people think that there is a good educational offering in the Highlands and Islands, which is up from 56 per cent in 2015. There is now less of a perception that the young people who stay lack ambition, which is due to the range of further and higher education that is available. There is no doubt that the University of the Highlands and Islands is having a positive impact on keeping our young people in the area and is attracting young people from throughout the United Kingdom and the world to study and stay in our area.

North Highland College, which is a partner in the UHI, is one of Scotland’s top colleges for positive student destinations, boasting rates of 90 per cent, a statistic that everyone involved is extremely proud of. To add to that, North Highland College and West Highland College student leavers have the highest progression rates into work, at 40 per cent, well above the national average.

This is North Highland College’s third year of delivering foundation apprenticeships. That very welcome endeavour is supported by the European social fund and enjoyed by young people who have taken the opportunity to learn in that way throughout the area. This year, the subjects that young people can study have increased with the introduction of business skills, information technology and hardware and system support; engineering is awaiting approval. Those new subjects send a powerful message to young people: the Highlands are not only open for business—we are open for innovation and success, too. I draw the chamber’s attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests as an adviser to the board of North Highland College.

Eighty-seven per cent of young people are proud to be associated with their community, which is up from 78 per cent in 2015. Sixty-four per cent want to work in the region, which is up from 44 per cent. I have mentioned foundation apprentices and there is no doubt that the developing the young workforce initiative has been pivotal in pulling together schools, colleges and the public and private sectors and encouraging them to work in a way they never did before. The Caithness and Sutherland group is facilitated by Caithness Chamber of Commerce and has provided a wide range of employment and career development activities and support, which has led to an increased number of work placements, employability workshops and events, employer-led mock interviews and science, technology, engineering and mathematics opportunities. STEM development has been further boosted through support from the Highland city region deal: £350 million of funding, consisting of £135 million from the Scottish Government, £127 million from Highland Council and its partners and £53 million from the UK Government.

Those are good stats, Presiding Officer, but, as always in life, not everything goes up and not everything is good news. For balance, the numbers participating in their communities are down by 9 per cent. That statistic surprised me, because I attended a youth volunteer awards ceremony in Wick in November where there were loads of young people who were all active in the community and extremely proud to be receiving their awards. I know that our islands also have a strong cohort of young volunteers, having met some of them in Parliament last year.

Thirty-eight per cent say that a lack of local opportunities is a barrier to achieving employment goals and although 71 per cent were happy with the choice of subjects that they can study, 46 per cent felt that the range of available subjects will limit their post-school options, which rises to 63 per cent in fragile areas. There is no doubt that there can be issues with school subject choices in rural areas and that a main barrier is teacher recruitment. I have raised the subject of allocating probationary teachers earlier in the school year to allow more flexibility with subject choices and timetables, and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has assured me that he will look into it.

Half of young people agree that their community is a place where it is okay to be different, which is the same as in 2015. However, research by LGBT Youth Scotland shows that, in rural areas, 81 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people experience at least one form of bullying in education and that 9 per cent of lesbian, gay or bisexual and 27 per cent of transgender young people left education because of it. That is only one of the reasons why an inclusive approach to education is even more important in the Highlands and Islands.

In conclusion, this is a welcome report that shows that more and more young people are realising and taking advantage of the opportunities that are offered to them to enable them to live, study and work in the Highlands and Islands. We have always had an issue with depopulation, but we should never completely halt that outward migration and neither should we seek to. Our young people will always want to broaden their horizons, whether that involves going to other parts of Scotland or other parts of the world. However, what this study shows is that we are empowering young people with more choice and that the days of them being forced away from their community because there are fewer prospects for studying and employment are in the past.

We need to ensure that these figures continue to rise, especially in our most fragile communities, by building on the work that has been done in areas such as provision of and access to opportunities, education and training and engagement with arts, leisure and culture activities. We also need to ensure that there is adequate housing for those who choose to stay or come back. Two or three new houses could make a huge difference in places such as Lochcarron, Kinlochbervie and Applecross.

I will close with a quote from the report:

“The Highlands and Islands is such a wonderful place and I always love telling people that is where I am from.”

Me too.

17:31  

I welcome the debate and congratulate Gail Ross on bringing it to the chamber.

As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I am perhaps biased, but I think that our region is one of the most diverse, most beautiful and most friendly in Scotland. The region has drawn many in, charmed by our landscape and sense of community, and it is undoubtedly a spectacular place to live.

However, it is certainly not without its challenges, which are not new. For generations, many people who were born in the Highlands and Islands have looked further afield for opportunities. They have felt that they cannot continue their education or progress in their chosen career and remain in the land where they were born and raised.

There is undoubtedly a sense of that in rural communities across our country. Young people will move away from such areas for university or work. What cannot be denied is the extent to which that is more pronounced in the Highlands and Islands. As Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s survey indicates, people aged between 15 and 30 make up 17 per cent of the population of our region, as opposed to 21 per cent across Scotland as a whole. There is a divide in the region, too, with the figure being lower still in some of the Western Isles and the west Highlands.

One of the most pronounced impacts of rural living early on in a person’s life is education, and the issue of subject choice is significant. Even where we see innovations such as the extension of foundation apprenticeships, we still see choice narrow in more remote communities. Some might suggest that that is natural, that it is a consequence of the choice to live in rural communities and that it is simply what would be expected in areas where there is a lower density of population. That will certainly be true in some aspects of life. However, there is also a stronger theory, which is that Government exists to expand opportunity, to share prosperity and to provide services that are similar across a country’s population. As far back as we can reasonably analyse, Scotland has had higher public spending than the UK average—today, we see that delivered through the Barnett formula. The chief justification for that disparity is that we have these geographic and demographic challenges. Where, we might ask, is that additional expenditure going if not on creating a level playing field in public services within Scotland?

There will always be a pull to a local community—being close to friends and family, and feeling a sense of home. For many, that pull will not be loosened by the odd difficulty. However, for people in these communities, the challenges of staying can be overwhelming.

As a young person leaves school and looks to their future, they might be able to accept a narrower choice in their education, but they might consider other possibilities, too. Can they get public transport to college, university or training? Can they be sure that they will be able to pick up a part-time job to supplement their income? These are areas where government can take a greater lead—preferably government at a local level that is responsive to the particular needs of remote and rural communities. My party has often pushed for localism. Decentralisation will be a part of any solution, yet our established organs of local government are struggling more than ever.

I mentioned foundation apprenticeships, but I should also touch on some of the opportunities that are presented by graduate apprenticeships. We should also consider how other elements of our education structures such as articulation from college to university can be valuable in our region. If we can properly adapt those educational routes to our difficult geography, we will not only increase life chances but provide a route that will enable those reluctant leavers to stay.

Those are just a few of the areas that could be mentioned. We could consider infrastructure, from roads to broadband, or the need to encourage entrepreneurship. I do not feel that those approaches are not understood by policymakers—they are. However, choices are made or not made, and the pace of change can be glacial.

The challenges of not making progress are stark. The future of young people in the Highlands and Islands is the future of our economy, of our public services and of the opportunities for generations to come.

17:35  

I congratulate Gail Ross on securing the debate. I also want to express my support for Highlands and Islands Enterprise surveying young people. That is a benefit of having an enterprise company with a social as well as an economic remit.

It is heartening to know that so many young people want to live and work in the Highlands and Islands. That said, I am not against people spreading their wings and seeing a bit of the world. The Highlands and Islands are famous for sending people around the globe. Unfortunately, much of this outward migration was, and is, not from choice; it is due to a lack of education and career opportunities in the region. We need to make sure that the decision to stay or leave is a real choice, enabling people to stay without compromising their life chances and career.

Gail Ross said that one of the biggest developments that has stemmed outward migration is the development of the University of the Highlands and Islands, which offers excellence in many of its institutions. She spoke about North Highland College, and there are many others as well. They provide the normal courses we would expect in a further education college but also the excellence that comes from a higher education facility. It is often the combination of both that provides opportunities that are not available in other institutions.

However, it is still the case that young people have to move away when their chosen course is not available locally. Otherwise, they are forced to compromise, as is shown clearly by the statistics that show lower educational qualifications among those who opt to stay compared with the national figures for qualifications.

Those figures also disguise movement within the area, with people having to move a distance from home just to access further and higher education. That leads to internal migration by young people to the more urban areas within the Highlands and Islands. The study showed that young people wanted to stay in the more fragile areas due to the stronger sense of community but, again, were less likely to be able to do that for career and educational reasons.

A recent study in the Uists showed that more young people were either returning or joining the community there. There was an increase in the number of children in the primary schools because of that. There are a number of reasons for that trend, but what is crucial to young people is work, housing and access to services. If we can provide those things, we can halt depopulation and bring new life to communities that would otherwise be dying.

Another issue that Gail Ross touched on in her speech is the diversity of a community. The LGBT Youth Scotland 2017 survey showed that young LGBT people living in rural areas are more likely to have poor mental health because there are fewer safe spaces for socialising. Gail Ross talked about bullying, and that is totally unacceptable. Although rural areas can be the best places in the world to live, no one is anonymous. That makes coming out difficult, because people cannot do that gradually, due to the lack of privacy. That lack of privacy makes it difficult for people with poor mental health to seek help when there is the added perception of stigma.

Such communities can be the most supportive. Everyone knows everyone else, so a person is less likely to be looked upon as a one-dimensional person but is recognised for all their attributes. Yet, we all instinctively want to conform and not stand out from the crowd, so anything that appears to make people stand out can be much more difficult to deal with.

The Highlands and Islands is a wonderful place to live, and, although I had to move from where I stayed when I was a child, for all the reasons that have been highlighted, my first home will always be home to me. I never chose to leave; I do not want any other young person to be forced to make that choice.

17:39  

I congratulate my colleague and friend Gail Ross on securing this evening’s members’ business debate.

The motion is focused on the Highlands, so I will begin by declaring an interest as the proud descendent of a Highlander. My granny, Flora MacRae, was the daughter of a crofter. My great-grandad, Donald, was also the postman for Muir of Ord and Muir of Tarradale, where the family croft was and still stands today.

For my granny, leaving the Highlands was almost a necessity, as it was for many of her generation. Indeed, the depopulation of that part of the country is remembered as one of the saddest times in our country’s history. The Highland youth survey is important because it tells us the story of the next generation’s ambitions and aspirations for Highland Scotland.

Gail Ross’s motion rightly points to the important part that young people play in supporting thriving communities. Indeed, 70 per cent of participants in the survey considered that those who stayed in the Highlands were lucky to be able to work or study locally. That speaks volumes about the opportunities that are now available for young people in the Highlands.

Members will remember that last year marked the year of young people, which focused on inspiring the country through our young people, celebrating their achievements, valuing their contributions to communities and creating new opportunities for the generations yet to come. Although there is no direct Fife equivalent, the Scottish Government-commissioned young people in Scotland survey asked young people a number of questions about their ability to make their views heard on decisions that affect their lives. When they were asked about adults in general, more than half the young people who were surveyed agreed that adults were good at listening to their views and good at taking their views into account when they took decisions that affected them.

Young people need to have their views listened to, but they also need to be part of the decision-making process. The Highland youth survey is therefore encouraging, as it shows that increasing numbers of young people want to live and work in the Highlands and Islands, with the proportion of committed stayers increasing from 36 per cent in 2015 to 46 per cent.

Depopulation is not limited to the Highlands. This week, I have been lucky enough to be shadowed by an S6 pupil—Jennifer Smith, from Auchmuty high school in Glenrothes. Ahead of the debate, I asked whether she would stay in Fife when she finishes school in the summer. She said, “When I leave school, I want to go to Edinburgh to live and study, and then maybe to London. Maybe one day I’ll come home to Fife.” I completely understand Jennifer’s motivations for wanting to do that. I, too, grew up in Fife, and I left to go to the big smoke in Glasgow. Gail Ross did likewise.

We need to balance the needs of our rural communities, such as those in the Highlands and Fife, with the needs of young people to explore our cities and to experience different places. We should not place a limitation on their ambitions; instead, we should seek to empower our young people to have a real voice in decision making from the outset, whether that is through the school council or modern studies. Perhaps the real test of last year’s year of young people will be whether, in 2019, we continue to engage young people in our work as parliamentarians.

The Highland youth survey is certainly an invaluable tool for measuring societal shifts in that part of Scotland. Last month, reflecting those shifts and responding to the survey in The Press and Journal, historian Jim Hunter wrote about his experience of growing up in the Highlands. He said:

“So prevalent was the conviction that success could only be achieved elsewhere that someone still at home when in their early twenties was likely to be seen as being, by definition, a failure”.

We should contrast his view with that of the young person whom Gail Ross quoted earlier, who said:

“The Highlands and Islands is such a wonderful place and I always love telling people that is where I am from.”

For Jim Hunter, what has made the difference in what he describes as a “transformation” in the attitudes of young people is the work that Highlands and Islands Enterprise has done, with the backing of successive Governments, so perhaps I should be calling for a kingdom of Fife enterprise.

On a serious note, the Highland youth survey provides us with information that is invaluable in measuring attitude shift. With that in mind, I will write to Fife Council, asking whether we can seek to learn from the survey by listening to the views of young people across the kingdom.

17:43  

As others have done, I start by thanking Gail Ross for securing the debate. It is an interesting subject, and I congratulate her on her motion.

I declare an interest as a man who was lured by the bright lights of Fort William many years ago. I was born and bred in the Highlands, and I have spent all but a handful of years living there. Therefore, I am delighted that one of the findings is that the number of young people who are committed to staying in the Highlands has increased. However, I go along completely with all those who have said that we should not be negative about people who leave the area. It is very important that we have a rich mix of people, and that comes about partly through people leaving. Many people from the Highlands and Islands who have done lots of good things around the planet have returned there and continued to contribute.

I want to make a small negative point about the report. I was disappointed to find that there was no mention in it of Brexit or Europe. Part of the rich mix in the Highlands—and the big change that has happened in my time—is the number of people from all sorts of cultures who are contributing to making it the vibrant place that it is now. However, Brexit looms over everything. I am thinking in particular of the Erasmus programme, which Dr Winifred Ewing, when she was an MEP, was instrumental in bringing in, and the benefits that have come from it. As things stand, people could well be denied some of those opportunities.

The comparator for this survey was the period up to 2015, when the previous study was undertaken, and we have the raw statistics in that respect.

Before I go on, I should say that I have just remembered another very minor negative. I am happy to go along with my colleague Gail Ross’s comments on the northern innovation hub and the science skills academy, but it disappoints me that £119 million that could be doing something very constructive is going on constructing roads in the Inverness area that will improve people’s journeys between locations by only 12 seconds at peak time. This is about priorities and, for a lot of people, the priority will be to understand the needs in a community.

I find the level of youth participation very heartening, because it is important that we have more parliamentarians who look like Gail Ross and fewer who look like John Finnie. There are far too many men in suits, which is the very thing that puts people off. Things are changing, and for the better.

I thought it significant that outward migration was concentrated in the 15 to 19 age group. On the issue of education, which has been repeatedly mentioned by members, my colleagues Gail Ross, Rhoda Grant and I visited e-Sgoil, an important development in the Outer Hebrides that caters for remote learning and, significantly, uses video technology to allow teachers to deliver classes from their homes. When I was there, some of the services were being provided to local authorities in the north-east of Scotland. We need to embrace such technology. Indeed, the whole collegiate system of UHI, which has been a great boost, is based on small groups of people, who by their very nature will still be in their communities, contributing to the whole. There is an opportunity in that respect.

There are many rich cultures in the Highlands, including the Norse culture in the north. I also highlight the developments in Gaelic, particularly in Skye. In my day, Gaelic was something that was spoken at ceilidhs, largely by old people, but the innovation is that people are now making very good livelihoods from taking Highlands and Islands culture all over this planet. That, too, has brought young people to the area.

There is a lot to be very positive about, and I thank Gail Ross for lodging the motion.

17:47  

I am delighted to follow John Finnie, who spent some of his childhood in my local village. I hope that, as one of our younger MSPs, he, too, will return home at some point.

I thank Gail Ross for securing the debate, and I feel that the discussion has been very worth while. We have started the year with a lot of pessimism and negativity, for all sorts of reasons, so it is very pleasing to take part in such a positive debate.

Like others, I am, as a Highlands and Islands MSP, all too aware of depopulation and the major impact that it has on rural and remote communities. Let me take a few statistics from the HIE report. First, it says that there is a deficit in the 15 to 30 age group; only 17 per cent of the population in the Highlands and Islands is aged 15 to 30, compared with 21 per cent in Scotland as a whole.

The report also says that, although the population in the Highlands and Islands is predicted to be stable to 2041, the 15 to 30 age group is expected to decrease by 15 per cent, which is a significant number. For example, it has long been predicted in Argyll and Bute that its working age population will decline by more than a third; likewise, it has been estimated that the working age population in the Western Isles will decline by 27 per cent. There is a real problem to deal with; however, it is not a recent phenomenon. The history of the Highlands and Islands over the past 250 years is one of more people leaving than arriving.

That said, many signs of improving attitudes to living in the Highlands and Islands are becoming abundantly clear, with more young people seeing a future for themselves in the region. I think that we will all welcome that, and rightly so. One speaker—I think that it was Rhoda Grant—mentioned the Uists, and I remember a report published last year that said that, unlike other island communities, the Uists appeared to be bucking the trend with a marked 67 per cent rise in the birth rate in the past decade.

An article in The Herald last year described the situation. It spoke about what it called the young “returners” who are helping to reverse the depopulation trends along with the

“new generation of young people”

that is

“keen to lay down roots”

in those communities. Many reasons were cited for this, including a feeling of greater safety for bringing up a family, the landscape, and the untapped markets for business enterprises.

It is clear from the HIE report that there are many more opportunities for young people now than there were even just a few years ago. The report notes that the Inverness and Highland city region deal will have an impact and also mentions projects such as the northern innovation hub and other rural growth deals.

Other speakers—including John Finnie—mentioned e-Sgoil, which I visited in Stornoway last year. It is an example of using technology to enable, in this instance, school children to learn, but it could easily be extended to other areas. There has also been investment in the region from STEM industries, which gives hope for long-term economic regeneration.

Longstanding businesses and organisations—such as BASF Pharma in Callanish in Lewis and MG ALBA in Stornoway—have committed to a long-term future in the region, which will ensure that there remains a demand for skilled workers in the area.

One thing that struck me in the HIE report was the fact that although 87 per cent of young people think that life in the Highlands requires making compromises—we accept that to be true—they nonetheless believe that there are growing opportunities for young people.

Lastly, I was struck by Gail Ross’s comments about housing; it is absolutely right to recognise housing as an issue. There are also issues with ferry connections, poor roads, broadband and so on; those are all issues that those of us who represent the Highlands and Islands know and talk about. Nonetheless, there is so much impetus for young people to stay and work in the region. I am delighted to have taken part in the debate, because getting it right now and ensuring that the economic regeneration of the Highlands and Islands continues will serve only to encourage more young people to live, work and make their lives there.

17:52  

I join others in thanking Gail Ross for bringing this motion for debate. I also thank members for their speeches. Like Donald Cameron, I welcome being able to take part in a positive debate. It is fantastic to see the progress that is being made in supporting more young people to live and work in the Highlands and Islands and how their attitudes have changed with regard to their desire to do so.

Jamie Halcro Johnston said that he might be biased in celebrating the area that he represents—he should not feel biased, because it is an outstanding part of the world, as is demonstrated by the very welcome trends that we have debated.

Jenny Gilruth and others placed the debate in its proper historical context. Like Jenny Gilruth, some part of the historical family experience of most of us who live in other parts of Scotland will be rooted in the depopulation of the Highlands and Islands. I therefore welcome that situation turning around.

I will place many of my comments in the context of the developing the young workforce initiative, which is mentioned in Gail Ross’s motion. Developing the young workforce is making a positive difference the length and breadth of the country, and it is certainly making a difference in the Highlands and Islands.

Before I turn to that issue, I will talk about the role of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which pulled together this very welcome report, for which I thank it. HIE is integral to creating the right conditions for the Highlands and Islands to thrive. It has been involved in supporting the right conditions for Scotland’s employers and has made progress in implementing the city region deal and delivering projects such as the northern innovation hub and the science skills academy. We should therefore commend the work of HIE. We should also commend the role of UHI in creating opportunities for young people in the region and acting as a hub for research and innovation.

The Scottish Government is committed to improving outcomes for those who live in the Highlands and Islands. That is why we are investing £135 million over 10 years through the Inverness city region deal. The deal sets out that investment of £135 million, a further £53 million from the UK Government and £127 million from Highland Council and regional partners. That represents some £300 million of investment in the region over 10 years. The programme will deliver a step change in transport, innovation, digital connectivity, housing, skills, infrastructure and tourism. It will improve the lives of many people who live and work in and visit the Highlands and Islands, and it will be able to further the trends that we have been debating.

Of course, there could have been £82 million more if the UK Government had matched the Scottish Government’s investment. I am very happy that, with the exception of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, the Parliament voted at decision time to reiterate its position that the UK Government should match that level of investment, but I will not linger on that.

As the minister with responsibility for developing the young workforce, I will say a little about our progress in supporting schools, colleges and employers to widen choice and improve outcomes for young people. The headline achievement of the initiative has been the reduction in youth unemployment of 40 per cent from 2014 levels. The ambition was to achieve that by 2021, but we achieved it four years early. We want to build on that progress.

In the Highlands and Islands, it is critical that we continue our long-term plan to strengthen education and skills partnerships between schools, colleges, training providers and employers, based on local circumstances. In that regard, I am pleased to note the positive shift in the perceptions of young people in the area. That is undoubtedly down to a variety of factors, such as the Highlands and Islands being an outstanding part of the world to live in, but there are also the efforts that schools and others are taking to redesign and refocus their curriculum offer to better meet the needs of employers and young people.

We have spoken about young people leaving the Highlands and Islands. Gail Ross, Rhoda Grant, John Finnie and others have made the point that there is absolutely nothing wrong with young people leaving any part of the country if that is what they aspire to do and if they want to take up that opportunity. However, when I visit areas in any part of the country—but particularly rural communities—I often find that young people leave because of a misperception that limited opportunities are available on their own doorstep. We have to break down misperceptions that create the idea that a young person has to leave the area that they have grown up in, which is not always the case.

I have seen such situations on more than one occasion. Through the developing the young workforce initiative, I have been able to engage with young people who have taken up opportunities on their doorstep, quite often with an employer that has been in their community for generations and which the young person did not know was based there. That is why it is important to have employers involved in the delivery of the developing the young workforce initiative.

We have 21 industry-led regional groups, six of which are in the Highlands and Islands. All those groups work towards the same aim, but they are responsive to local economic and skills needs. I have been very happy to visit groups across the country, including in the Highlands and Islands, and I look forward to being able to return to them in the future.

I know that there are particular challenges in supporting education and training opportunities in Scotland’s rural communities and in the Highlands and Islands. There have, of course, been improvements. The University of the Highlands and Islands has made a system change in the delivery of higher education opportunities in the Highlands and Islands. I, too, have had the privilege of visiting the e-Sgoil, which John Finnie and Donald Cameron mentioned. It is a fantastic model for the delivery of education.

However, we know that there are barriers to and additional costs in the delivery of employment and training in the area. That is one reason why we have adapted our modern apprenticeship system by creating a rural supplement. That is of importance to the Highlands and Islands. The fund supports training providers and employers to overcome barriers that are traditionally faced in rural areas to the delivery of modern apprenticeship opportunities.

Those are just some of the ways in which we are committed to supporting young people in the Highlands and Islands through our DYW agenda, our skills system and our strategic economic investment. Gail Ross and other members can be assured of that on-going commitment.

Meeting closed at 17:59.