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Holyrood - Russell bids frosty MSPs seasonal greetings

You can tell that Education Secretary Michael Russell relishes Ken Macintosh's questions from the way he grits his teeth, grows red in the face and clenches his fists until the nails dig into the palms of his hands and blood is drawn when the Labour MSP starts speaking.

Last week at the Parliament's education committee their relationship continued to blossom, with Mr Russell describing Mr Macintosh as a goldfish.

Mr Macintosh was not suffering from jaundice; nor does Labour's schools spokesman boast a particularly pronounced pout. The Education Secretary was referring to Mr Macintosh's attention span after he asked him to repeat an answer.

Mr Russell had, however, been provoked. Already Mr Macintosh had forced him to make "partisan" comments, he complained. This is a habit of Mr Macintosh's that irks the Education Secretary, who reminds us regularly he is a great advocate of consensus politics (usually just before taking a well-aimed swipe at the opposition).

The theme of last week's exchange was the budget. The Government wanted to maintain teacher numbers, but how did that fit in with Mr Russell's decision to limit the number of places in teacher training, Mr Macintosh wanted to know.

The rate of decline in teacher numbers was slowing, replied Mr Russell. This was due to the practical decisions he had taken since coming to office.

His fellow MSPs refrained from getting out the bunting.

What sanctions would be in place for local authorities who failed to maintain teacher numbers, asked the Lib Dems' Margaret Smith.

There was a financial penalty, said Mr Russell. Those who failed to commit to the target would have to find savings of 6.4, not 2.6 per cent.

Would changing to pupil-teacher ratios to hit class size targets affect teacher unemployment, given you needed fewer teachers to maintain a ratio, asked SNP MSP Christina McKelvie. Further, would guaranteeing jobs for current probationers disadvantage other NQTs? And what about all those irritated supply teachers who were writing to her?

It appeared Mr Russell had most sympathy with supply teachers. But Cosla, the local authorities body, needed to "balance the books". If supply teachers weren't hit, something else would be, he said. Merry Christmas.

emma.seith@tes.co.uk.

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