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Caught in the middle of the battleground

The public could be forgiven for wondering who exactly is the education minister at the moment. Hardly a week seems to go by without Jack McConnell, the First Minister, announcing a new departure in education policy. Skills academies to ensure "no child is left behind" and science academies to ensure "no child is held back" are among the initiatives and mantras he has launched in recent days. No doubt there will be more, as Labour sets out its stall for the Scottish general and local elections next May.

Mr McConnell is not alone in this naked pitch for votes; other parties have been exposing their wares and parading their manifestos. But Labour is up against it in the polls, energised to make an impact and, for better or worse, it has chosen education as its battleground. No less a figure than Gordon Brown weighed in this week to support these initiatives, as did his Scottish protege Wendy Alexander.

What we appear to be witnessing is education being deliberately chosen as an electoral battering ram against the SNP, Labour's main challengers. "We are working hard on education while the SNP is working hard on an independence referendum" is Labour's unsubtle message.

There is more to this than meets the electoral eye, however. The little-known but potentially significant research being carried out as part of the Scottish Executive's "Futures Project", an attempt to predict how Scotland should deal with its strengths and weaknesses over the next 20 years, is charting some of the territory on Mr McConnell's map. We have a good story to tell educationally, but we also have areas of under-performance to tackle: that is what these research findings tell us.

Whether skills and science academies are part of the educational answer remains to be seen. They may have their own merits, but they are also expected to sort out other imperatives: disengaged learners and economic shortcomings. Schools, as never before, will have to become part of the bigger picture, as will colleges and universities. That is why Mr McConnell is now behind the wheel in driving educational policy: it's the economy, stupid.

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