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Holyrood's nursery slopes

As the devolved Executive and Parliament approach their fifth anniversary, Neil Munro looks at the educational record

What have the Scottish ministers and MSPs ever done for us?

As far as the Scottish Parliament is concerned, the conventional wisdom is that, while the chamber fills with hot air, the committees in their 417 meetings this past year are usually redolent of wisdom and effectiveness.

And while the Scottish Executive goes overboard on "policyitis", the impact on the ground is said to be less frantic. The realities are more complex.

The committee system certainly continues to open up the hitherto secret corridors and smoke-filled rooms to unprecedented scrutiny, the case most frequently cited being the inquiry following the 2000 exams crisis. This would have been unlikely during Westminster's hegemony, not just summoning officials to account but also the remarkable release of normally confidential correspondence.

But has this relentless outbreak of democracy made any difference over the past five years? Certainly the key legislative flagships, the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act 2000 (the Parliament's first Act) and the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004, will undoubtedly have a major impact - but it will be a slow burn.

Sam Galbraith, the former education minister, certainly believed that the inspection of education authorities which stemmed from the 2000 Act was, for him, the most important measure of all.

Of course, no review of this period would be complete without reference to the teachers' 2001 agreement, for which Mr Galbraith laid the groundwork by setting up the McCrone inquiry, although Jack McConnell, his successor as education minister, got the credit for brokering the deal that followed.

Even the outcome of the national debate, as it percolates through the system, may begin to make a difference. Certainly the current reviews of the 3-18 curriculum, 3-14 assessment, initial teacher education and school links with further education are all consequences of the debate - a previously unheard of emphasis on educational detail in Scotland.

Often the best Scotland could hope for in the past was to have a measure piggy-back on an English Bill - the inspection of teacher training, for example.

So changes there will certainly be. Whether they will amount to reforms is another matter. Critics like David MacLetchie, the Tory leader, and John Swinney, outgoing SNP leader, have been quick to pounce on what they see as political correctness and a fondness for reviews rather than action.

The most recent legislative effort, the Bill to give ministers extra powers to intervene in "failing" schools and authorities, may turn out to be one of those changes which signal no reform. As one insider put it: "It is a measure designed to suggest toughness when no one really believes it will make any difference. That means there is posturing going on and there has been quite a lot of that from the McConnell administration."

Perhaps, as a spokesperson for the Educational Institute of Scotland commented, the major change has been in relationships. "We now regularly liaise with ministers, officials and MSPs on a number of different levels," he says.

"From a previous history of protest, substantial disagreement and frustration, there is now a wholly different atmosphere both in general partnership and day-to-day contacts - and not just on the detail of implementation but early on in the policy process."

Of course, a very different impression is formed at the annual conferences of the education unions where class sizes, indiscipline and the private funding of school buildings continue to resonate with delegates. "The impact on schools has been slower," the EIS spokesman conceded.

Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, an inveterate observer of the parliamentary scene, agrees with the view that one of the main achievements of the past five years is to have made matters more public.

But while the committee hearings have been important in this respect, Mrs Gillespie added: "I'm not sure the reports of their inquiries have had a big impact. I'm not sure they achieved much that the Executive didn't want achieved."

The committees have had their moments, but often they divide along party lines. This was even true over that much-lauded investigation into the Scottish Qualifications Authority. "Opposition members seemed to be interested only in damaging Sam Galbraith," one of those closely involved commented.

He added: "They were hugely influenced by the volume of correspondence they received, leading one senior civil servant to point out that they should evaluate evidence, not weigh it.

"SQA followed up every pupil sob story about missing or inaccurate results that appeared in the media and found that all had got the results they had earned. Yet the education committee interviewed endless numbers and their parents without doing a similar background check on what they were hearing."

Mrs Gillespie makes a distinction between different aspects of the committees' work. "Where they have a clear remit, for example taking evidence for a Bill, they work well. When they don't have such a clear remit, they tend to be all over the place."

A professional adviser would help them become more effective, she believes.

A view from inside the civil service is that a decent sprinkling of former ministers, such as exists on Westminster committees, would add edge and experience since they know how the system works. Possibly this is still too young a democracy to have expertise in such abundance.

It is none the less a democracy. And whatever her scepticism, Mrs Gillespie herself has succeeded in proving it by getting the system to work at least once on parents' behalf - the little-noticed change in the rules affecting deferrred entry to primary, promoted through the education committee. She even sits on the SQA board - also an implausibility under the Westminster regime.

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