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Interview: Ken Macintosh

With the Scottish Parliament back in session this week, Labour's education spokesman will be squaring up to the Education Secretary across the despatch box. The father-of-six - tipped by some as a leader of the Scottish Labour Party - pinpoints the likely battlegrounds in educational politics in the coming year.

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With the Scottish Parliament back in session this week, Labour's education spokesman will be squaring up to the Education Secretary across the despatch box. The father-of-six - tipped by some as a leader of the Scottish Labour Party - pinpoints the likely battlegrounds in educational politics in the coming year.

Your father, Farquhar Macintosh, was head of the Royal High in Edinburgh and chair of the Scottish Examination Board - how influential was he on your views on education?

Actually, both my parents were - they were both headteachers. Politically, I would say my mother was the more influential of the two in terms of my view of the world.

I would like to think I inherited my father's gregariousness, but my mother's left-wing politics and principles. My mother, Margaret Macintosh, was head of Drummond Community High and assistant head of Wester Hailes. Both my parents' schools were comprehensives in Edinburgh, but at the Royal High 10 per cent of the population lived in rented or council accommodation, while there wasn't a single privately-owned house in Wester Hailes. Mum and Dad had discussions on educational issues in which they didn't always agree.

Meetings of the Scottish Parliament's education committee have often been characterised by clashes between Mike Russell and yourself. Will that confrontation continue this session?

I hope not. I admire his abilities, but criticise some of the decisions. I have nothing personal against Mike Russell, but recognise that when I raise criticisms or express concerns over progress or lack of it, or what I feel is a rose-tinted view of what is happening, then that gets under his skin.

Which education policies do you think the Government is vulnerable on?

It has negotiated a local government settlement pretty well based on saving money from education - and supply teachers are the most obvious victims. I'm not convinced about where it stands on class sizes. It seems to have all sorts of targets, figures and agreements, which cause confusion. There are huge question marks over how it funds higher education. There are other areas it suggests it is going to invest in, such as early years and putting pre-school on a statutory footing. But is that going to be new additional resources or diversion of resources from another stage?

As education spokesman - or Scottish Labour leader if you are elected to the post - which education policies will be your priorities this year?

I haven't declared yet for the leadership, so I'll have to restrict myself to the former. It's not my choice as to which education policies to prioritise this year - the SNP has got an absolute majority. Within the range of policies coming up, perhaps the one we will be pressing for most is clarity in HE. The universities are all cutting back in certain areas, but they are doing it individually rather than strategically.

Your father was a strong proponent of Gaelic education - are you a Gaelic speaker and do you support the Scottish Government's Gaelic strategy?

Yes he was, and no, unfortunately I'm not a Gaelic speaker. One of the good things this Government has done is to continue and develop Gaelic- medium education. Gaelic education will help secure the future of the language. Places like Edinburgh will be the real test. If Edinburgh goes ahead with a standalone primary and we get a Gaelic secondary in the city, that will help.

Will you support Scottish teachers if they go on strike over pension changes?

I don't instinctively support strike action - it is a sign of failure, usually on two sides. Having said that, it is your right to withdraw your labour if you are being exploited.

Was Scottish Labour right before the election to adopt SNP policy on student tuition fees?

That's not the way we did it. We announced our policy before they officially announced theirs, but I recognise that the perception was that it happened that way. The Labour Party has gone through several policies in this issue, but first and foremost is the importance of education and access to education. After that, it's how you pay for it. The first time, back in 1997, we had inherited the Tory spending plans for the first two years and there was no way of extending HE on those spending plans. One of the first things we did when we came into power in Scotland was to get rid of tuition fees and introduce the graduate endowment - but the SNP got rid of the endowment. This time, on the basis that the SNP's budget had put aside enough money to pay for tuition fees, we went for a policy of no tuition fees. I am disappointed we didn't make our position clearer earlier. Education was the defining policy of New Labour and yet this vexed issue of how to pay for the extension of HE has damaged us in Scotland. Opposition to tuition fees is a crucial policy and one we will continue to support.

In the current climate of fiscal stringency, which group in the education world do you fear for most?

It's difficult to say whether it's teachers or university staff. Given that there is such a focus on early years and there is still a bit of attention being paid to class sizes, I hope that early primary and pre- school will be slightly safer than further up.

Were you ever tempted to become a teacher?

Yes, I was, but my parents put me off. They didn't put me off ever being a teacher - just suggested I try something else. I think I would have enjoyed it and found it rewarding. Being an MSP is also rewarding and satisfying - although we don't actually educate anyone.


Born: Inverness, 1962

Education: Portree and Oban primaries, Royal High, Edinburgh; Edinburgh University, MA (Hons) in history

Career: Television producer for BBC News, Breakfast with Frost and researcher on election programmes for David and Jonathan Dimbleby; elected MSP for Eastwood in 1999.

Photography by Fraser Band

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