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Friends reunited

Fiona Hyslop has been appointed cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning

EARLY YEARS and class size reforms look likely to be the first areas of education to win consensus across the political parties, as the new minority SNP government took office at Holyrood this week.

Despite predictions to the contrary, Alex Salmond, the First Minister, stood by Fiona Hyslop, who has shadowed education impressively for the past four years, and appointed her cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning.

Her post means reuniting the political responsibility for colleges and universities, which the previous executive had located in the enterprise and lifelong learning department, with schools.

It is the most significant feature of this week's remarkable political upheaval, which will see the up-and-coming civil servant Philip Rycroft, head of the enterprise department, take charge of the enlarged education portfolio. Mr Rycroft was previously head of the schools group in the executive's former education department.

Ms Hyslop will have two junior ministers - Maureen Watt, a long-standing SNP activist and North East list MSP, in charge of schools and skills; and Adam Ingram, South of Scotland MSP, a former member of the parliament's education committee, responsibile for children and early years.

Mr Salmond, in his first remarks to parliament as First Minister, pledged to "reach out across the parties to build a majority issue by issue".

He received a significant, if indirect, response from his predecessor Jack McConnell, who said in a television interview on Wednesday that there was "potential for common ground" in the two parties' respective policies on extending nursery education and reducing class sizes.

With the Liberal Democrats also committed to action in these two areas, cross-party agreement seems inevitable - but exactly what form it takes will depend on the political horse-trading which will be a hallmark of the parliament over the next four years. The education committee is likely to become a powerful focus to fashion the consensus that will be required.

The SNP manifesto committed it to increase free nursery education for three and four-year-olds by 50 per cent as well as increase the number of qualified nursery teachers at an initial cost of pound;35 million.

Labour's plan was to extend free nursery education from 12.5 to 15 hours a week and from 35 to 38 weeks a year, which would cost pound;34 million a year On class sizes, the SNP's priority was a limit of 18 pupils in P1-3 at a cost of pound;35 million next year, against Labour's promise to reduce numbers below the average of western countries.

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