The Scottish Labour leader was a teacher before she entered politics. Here she discusses the way forward in education, where the cash will come from to build new schools, and the issues of class sizes, college funding and tuition fees
Why did Labour do so badly in last year’s Holyrood elections?
In 2007, we didn’t acknowledge properly a trend for people feeling they could vote Labour at Westminster but drift away from us for other elections. We misread the 2010 (general) election, thinking it was confirmation that Scotland was a Labour country - it was probably confirmation that Scotland was still anti-Tory. There’s an issue about rebuilding trust, and our confidence in the values that brought us into politics.
How have your 20 years as a teacher helped in politics?
I’ve got a strong sense that you test ideas and policy against the consequences in our community, and the capacity of people to deliver them - not presume that, because it’s a good idea, it’ll play out that way. It also gives me huge optimism about families, communities and young people.
You’ve chosen an old face - former education minister Hugh Henry - as education spokesman. Is there a dearth of fresh talent in Scottish Labour?
Not at all. Old face or not, Hugh Henry’s got a strong, proud record as an education minister and a parliamentarian. If you look across our team, there are old and new faces.
Labour targeted smaller class sizes for S1-2 maths and English while in power. Are smaller classes an issue worth pursuing?
Having been a secondary English teacher, I know S1-2 is critical, particularly for boys; it’s where they tended to drop out of the system. Others can make a strong argument for smaller classes in primary - but where is the resource to fund it? If the price is losing smaller classes in secondaries, classroom assistants, learning support teachers, that’s not a policy at all. I object to that policy being isolated as a “good thing”. We need an honest debate.
Should 16- and 17-year-olds get to vote in an independence referendum?
We’re having a very odd debate now about a denial of young people’s opportunities in the referendum, but as far as I’m aware the SNP did not seek, through the Scotland Bill, to make this change in other elections. Whatever the decision, it should be for all elections. The bigger challenge is why huge numbers of young people don’t vote.
So should they be allowed to vote in both referendums and parliamentary elections?
We understand the case being made, but if anyone thinks this is a quick fix to apathy and disconnection, I’d be disturbed.
Having been consistently critical of the Scottish Futures Trust, how would Labour go about building schools - public-private partnerships or something else?
We’re open to looking at a range of models. The Scottish Futures Trust itself is a form of PPP. People are dismissive of PPP schools - of course primaries in Glasgow weren’t built under PPP, and they’re fantastic, so we should be looking at that kind of model - but a number of secondaries were done under PPP and I believe they reflect the seriousness with which Labour took young people’s education. But there will be creative people out there who will think of other models, too.
Should headteachers have the power to hire and fire?
There’s a view that a head can transform schools, and I accept there’s evidence of that. But I’m not convinced all heads are built to do that. Schools I’ve worked in had fantastic headteachers, but also a team of other fantastic people. I don’t think it’s about hiring and firing; it’s about how teachers are given the opportunity to contribute to, and shape, the life of the school.
Former Labour education spokesman Des McNulty described a graduate contribution to university education as “inevitable”. What is your view?
Certainly, I wouldn’t be in favour of upfront tuition fees. But if you’re funding your determination not to have a graduate contribution on a 20 per cent cut to further education, a political debate is needed around that. I’m not rushing to have a graduate contribution, but if current policy means colleges will not serve the needs we want, and lots of people continue to be deterred from higher education, there’s a problem.
Would regionalisation of colleges be a good or bad thing?
It’s a false argument. The 20 per cent cut being imposed on colleges could affect their core capacity. If a merger works, fine, but don’t start from the basis that the problem is that colleges are not merged. Cardonald College is a fantastic community college, but it’s also pioneering far beyond Glasgow and Scotland in some things it does. These are centres of excellence; we ought not to assume just because they’re colleges they all do the same things.
You come from a Gaelic-speaking family. How vital is it that the language prospers?
As a child everybody around me spoke Gaelic, but I was brought up in Glasgow and didn’t speak it. Part of that was about fear of being different. Gaelic-medium education has made a huge difference. I love the language and the culture round it and I want it to be sustained.
What is the biggest issue facing Scottish education in the coming years?
There’s a huge challenge facing our society with youth unemployment. I taught in the 1980s. I know that sense of young people being dispirited and not achieving their potential. We can’t go back to that.
Born: Glasgow, 1957
Education: Woodside Secondary, Glasgow; MA (Hons) history and English, Glasgow University; PGCE history and English, Jordanhill College; certificate in guidance, Strathclyde University.
Career: Rothesay Academy, Bute and Springburn Academy, Glasgow; education support teacher, Castlemilk High, Glasgow. MSP for Glasgow Pollok since 1999. Scottish Labour leader, 2011-.