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Labour deserves the time to get it right

In Britain today there are two kinds of people - those who have sensed, understood and realised the new political landscape (of which the Government's majority is but one part) and those who view the world as if May 1 had never happened. The new Education Minister may well welcome positive criticism farther down the line. However, after only four weeks, it is a just a tad unfair to be criticised (May 30), by Astrid Ritchie for doing too much and by Helene Witcher for offering too little.

Helene's case is that Building Scotland's Future is a flimsy and anodyne document which doesn't offer enough scaffolding to nail its colours to. The education document should be read together with New Labour - New Life for Scotland which places education in the context of economic and social policies. The other point she neglects is that Labour's document was in consultation for more than 11 months with all bodies interested in the welfare of Scottish education. It has to be borne in mind that the education policies for Scotland's future need to be built on the wasteland of 18 years of Tory decay and neglect.

Within four weeks Labour carried out the following manifesto promises: the end of the assisted places scheme, the abolition of the nursery voucher scheme, setting up a working party to look at teacher education and the future of all schools in local authority framework. In addition, there is to be a year's delay on Higher Still and the end to compulsory national testing and teacher appraisal.

An example of a difference in approach is that the Scottish Office will begin to pick up on the good practice of councils in tackling equality issues. Rising inequality in achievement on the narrow measure of exam performance does not reverse itself after four weeks. Concerns about the gap between boys and girls in secondary schools will not be sorted out in the first year.

It may well be that some of these problems may not even be sorted out within the first term of the new Scottish parliament when Scottish education for the first time will get what it deserves, a unified, coherent system. Helene Witcher has to start thinking for the longer term.

She should have taken time to read the foreword in the document from George Robertson, which aimed to "ensure that every child has the best possible education, regardless of background, creed or ethnic origin. It is their rightful legacy." She could have read closer the section on the partnership with councils which states that Labour is committed to ensuring that local funding is sufficiently flexible to compensate for economic and social disadvantage. She should be reassured that where councils have been tackling prejudice, bigotry and racism there is now a Government that will seek to promote such good practice across the nation rather than neglect such work.

In addition, Labour is placing individual children at the heart of policy. Surely she would accept that one of the most vibrant forms of anti-racism is respect for the individual. It is less easy for racist attitudes to continue when an individual's welfare is at the heart of the educational process.

The more polite response to Astrid Ritchie is to wake up. What happened on May 1 was no nightmare, Astrid. You did wake up on May 2 to find that the Conservative Party which proposed rigid forms of setting completed the set of three levels of non-representation - no MPs, no MEPs and no Tory councils. I offer her the same advice as Michael Forsyth received from his children, get a life.

Opting-out or self-governing schools, call them what you will: the opportunity to be one has been on statute for eight years and only two schools went for it both with massive bribes involved. St Mary's, which Astrid Ritchie conveniently forgot to mention, received more money for capital building than all the schools in Stirling put together. If Michael Forsyth or Astrid Ritchie want to know the contribution of education to their defeat they only need to digest that fact. Education should be run for the many, not the few.

New Labour has to begin to change the culture and climate of Scottish education. All children will be the beneficiaries of policies aimed towards high quality and high achievement. Acting in partnership with schools, councils, business and parents, the scaffolding will be put in place to support a renovation and a modernisation to the benefit of all children.

The principles of comprehensive education have served Scotland well - the Scottish Labour Party aims to build on the successes of the past.

David Watt is secretary of the Socialist Educational Association.

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