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'I firmly believe education should be demand led'

In the four weeks up to the Scottish election, TESS will interview each of the main parties' education spokespeople. This week, Henry Hepburn talks to Scottish Conservative Liz Smith

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In the four weeks up to the Scottish election, TESS will interview each of the main parties' education spokespeople. This week, Henry Hepburn talks to Scottish Conservative Liz Smith

The Conservative party is proposing a graduate contribution of pound;4,000 a year, while other parties support free university education. Will this not be a vote-loser?

This is a long-term policy; the university sector wants something that's sustainable. I think we're doing what's right for the country, students and university staff.

By allowing 14-year-olds to leave school for full-time apprenticeships or training, is there a risk you could be pigeonholing them too early and restricting their opportunities?

Not at all - quite the reverse. There are very successful European nations who make it clear that, beyond their equivalent of S2-3, there are two clearly-defined routes, and this was recommended by Professor John Howie in the '90s. It'll make sure we're dealing with the interests and talents of every child.

You have said that the `obsession' with comprehensive education beyond the age of 14 has `failed this country'. Could you elaborate?

There are too many youngsters, particularly in S4-5 examination classes, who are there because the system dictates it; we're forcing too many to go down a largely academic route. What worries me is that they become disillusioned and are treated as second-class citizens.

You are advocating `second chance centres' for disruptive pupils. How sceptical are you about the `inclusion agenda'?

In a few schools, there is definitely a discipline problem; the system isn't coping with the persistently-excluded child. That child has to learn that his or her behaviour is unacceptable, but at the same time why it's unacceptable. Retired policemen, armed services personnel or teachers are clear that a lot of good work can be done if these children are taken out of mainstream classes, where the environment is alien to them and they're being destructive, so they can get more personal attention about how to refocus their lives. We're very taken with schemes like Glasgow's nurture groups.

For the running of schools, you propose to allow state schools to operate independently of local authorities, or parents and not-for-profit trusts to set up schools. How far are you prepared to go?

I believe very firmly that education should be demand-led. If there is a demand for change in some parts of the country, we have no problem with people opting out.

You also want to give more power to heads. Does that include hiring and firing?

Very much so. It's essential that recruitment practice is part of that deal.

You said to your party conference that there should be more `rigorous testing' of reading, writing and arithmetic. Does this not go against the majority view in Scotland, that the burden of testing should be reduced?

I'm not saying there should be more testing, I'm saying there should be more rigorous testing - I agree that there is too much testing in schools. Councils like Clackmannanshire, East Ayrshire and West Dunbartonshire have been successful in raising standards because they have used fairly traditional methods of teaching the 3Rs and testing them.

Moving away from your manifesto, there are issues you don't raise, such as the McCrone agreement on teachers' working conditions. How important is it to protect that?

I was very much a supporter at the time because it raised standards, and gave teachers security, confidence and professional standing. We need to hold the basic principles, but I do think it needs reformed.

On the subject of probationers, how would you make sure there are jobs for them after they finish their induction year?

It's essential that there is better workforce planning and we need to allow heads much greater say over recruitment. We must also make sure we're stimulating the public sector.

Supply teachers feel they have come off badly in recent negotiations about pay and conditions. What support would you offer?

After I submitted a Freedom of Information request, I was amazed at how few local authorities kept good records of where the supply base was. We have to make sure all stakeholders are involved in a formal discussion about how we best use supply teachers' immense talents.

Can you promise that the freeze on the chartered teacher programme won't become a permanent end?

I've been a very strong supporter of it. I would envisage that we continue to support it in principle, but it may need some reform.

You have criticised `educational zealots who come up with new-fangled ideas', alleging that they are demoting the importance of punctuation, grammar, the periodic table, Pythagoras, the ability to identify countries on a map, and Winston Churchill. Isn't this scaremongering that bears little relation to what happens in classrooms?

No, it's not. Knowledge is just as important as skills, but education in the last two decades has gone very much towards skills. We've had too many trends that have ignored basic facts and knowledge that pupils require.

Which single proposal by the Scottish Conservatives would make the biggest difference to education in Scotland?

If children have the 3Rs, they unlock so many doors. We need to focus on basic testing of these skills.


- graduate contribution of up to pound;4,000 per year;

- 14-year-olds could leave school for apprenticeships or full-time training;

- state schools permitted to operate independently of local authorities;

- parents, philanthropists, charities and not-for-profit trusts can set up schools;

- more power for headteachers, particularly over discipline, recruitment and budgeting;

- trial "second chance centres" for pupils persistently excluded from school;

- reform testing of reading, writing and arithmetic.

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