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The circus comes to town

Politics is all power: gaining it, keeping it, extending it, using it - and, most of all, not losing it.

The education brief in Britain is always an interesting portfolio because, while it might look easy and simple to the public (and many politicians), it is far more complex than could be imagined. The reason for this is that when national politicians make promises about education - such as smaller class sizes, more teachers, more and better schools - they usually have little power to deliver these policies.

In Scotland, the Great Travelling Educational Circus opens with the ringmaster, a typically overweight, cheery chappy whose bonhomie belies a belligerent and bullying nature behind the curtain, seducing the audience with the greatest of great expectations. In a hiatus of hyperbole, he proffers promises about each and every act, moving quickly along to the next if they don't deliver, as if nothing untoward has happened.

The first act to appear is the Great Levitator Swinifski, a juggling act from the nationalist socialist commune who we are told is able to keep all his balls in the air without dropping one. The ringmaster says "Swinifski, the swift one" can fund more teachers and finance more schools than any other act - matching brick for brick Androv Kerrsikov, the great juggler from the international socialist circus who is now in forced retirement.

Only Swinifski can't, and he doesn't. His balls hit the dust and the stewards run out with their big brooms to sweep up the mess.

His Scottish Futures Trust will cost us Pounds 4.5 million this year to advise councils how they can't build anything, but their lunches will at least be good. Not one school more will be built than those already planned by the last visiting circus. Fortunately for him, the audience is still under the spell of the ringmaster and, anyway, these financial balls are far too difficult to follow.

Next, balanced delicately as she stands legs akimbo on her two prancing white stallions is the majestic Hyslopia - who once lived in Dystopia but now suffers from myopia as she offers us Utopia.

She too has been tasked with the impossible, spinning plates while riding round in circles, trying to keep her horses together so she doesn't do the splits. With her smile melting under the heat of the lights to reveal a grimace, Hyslopia finds that her two chargers wish to go separate ways. Unionus knows where he is going: he wants more teachers in schools; his double act, Councilus has a mind of his own and wishes to go one way and then another, so long as it's a different path from Unionus. The plates crash to the ground and Hyslopia is dragged unceremoniously back stage with her rear trailing along the dirt like some chariot without wheels. Not so much Ben Hur as Ben Had.

Teacher numbers are all over the shop, in some places going up and, in others, going down, but mainly the latter - and it appears more difficult to find a post than ever. Meanwhile, authorities are using the freedom granted to them by the Finance Secretary, when he removed ring-fenced funding, to tell the Education Secretary they don't see smaller class sizes as a priority, so there's little chance of her or the ringmaster's promises being kept.

Just as the then Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher was powerless to stop the ending of free school milk for all (she argued against it in cabinet, but the Treasury prevailed) and signed-off the closure of more English grammar schools than any other minister (she could not stop local authorities making their own decisions), so too will Fiona Hyslop be powerless to command the Scottish educational tide to turn.

Unlike Thatcher, however, she will not go on to replace the ringmaster.

Brian Monteith was once a clown in the small Tory Tent at Holyrood.

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