Dear Jack, I'm glad that, even though you're now First Minister, you've kept your interest in education and I'm happy to offer a report on 2002. However, I must start by saying how totally typical it was of a man to get all the praise for reaching a ground-breaking agreement, the McCrone settlement on teachers' pay, then b***** off before the problems started to show and leave me, a woman, to pick up the pieces.
The first problem was that everyone else and his wife wanted to get on the McCrone bandwagon - well, advisers, education psychologists and music instructors. It was clearly impossible for the Executive to shell out 23 per cent to everyone.
Fortunately, the unions on the new Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers felt the same, although I was disappointed that Eleanor Currie broke the sisterly ranks in her review of educational psychologists and, in the light of an acute shortage, recommended that we should pay them 17 per cent more. Fortunately, the EIS supported our stance. After all they didn't want to win a mega-deal for their members only for every other Tom, Dick and Adviser to get the same benefits. In the end we managed to settle for a mere 15.7 per cent - a jolly good deal, I thought.
We'd no sooner settled that problem than we were faced with having to meet the requirements on probationers and find them all a year's training slot. We were OK with the primary trainees but trying to fit secondary staff to places available was a nightmare. It was quite unreasonable of schools who were looking for a mathematician to reject our offer of a geographer. However, by chucking a little more money around, we got everyone fixed up eventually, even if some ungrateful probationers were not willing to move out of the central belt to take up jobs in deepest Dumfriesshire. The only problem is we'll have to go through the whole exercise again this year.
Now the latest problem is that headteachers are complaining that our long-agreed promise to streamline the promoted post structure and get rid of assistant principal teachers will have an adverse effect on the guidance staff. What do guidance staff do and why do so many of them have this promoted post anyway? Headteachers moaning has been a recurrent theme this year. They're not happy because they're not on the SNCT and because they can't manage everything on teachers' 35-hour week.
Gift for LEAs
Of course, this whole McCrone deal has handed local authorities an absolute gift. They no longer complain that they are short of money. They now moan that they haven't enough money to "implement McCrone". They then add that this is because we've distributed money according to pupil numbers, not teacher numbers. However, we're off the hook on that one because that was Cosla's decision, not ours. And when East Lothian seems to have so much McCrone money that they can divert some of it to social work, it just makes the moans of the others look like incompetent management.
Talking of money, Borders got itself in a frightful mess. \They'd over-spent on their schools by having much too generous provision, particularly at nursery level. Still, for once it was nothing to do with us and we could sit back and watch the Liberal Democrats who ran the council take a terrible battering. I couldn't help noticing that Fife got itself out of a similar mess because it saved money by not recruiting educational psychologists - apparently there weren't any candidates. See how wise we were to keep their pay rise down to 15.7 per cent.
One good piece of news was that the whole exam process worked rather well - the Scottish Qualifications Authority delivered correctly and on time. The pass rate was a little low - 2.5 per cent down. However, I was quickly on top of that and immediately called for that old ministerial standby, an inquiry. I need not have worried. Before the day was out UCAS had caused a diversion by misinterpreting the fallback award - whatever that is, some kind of fail I think - as a "C" pass and had sent some students to university who hadn't really made the grade. I enjoyed a certain schadenfreude at this mess-up by an English organisation.
And if all that weren't enough, the total chaos in England over A-levels, with wrong grades and angry parents, was such a pleasure to watch. It made the lower pass rate up here seem like evidence of a sound and trustworthy examination system. When the outcome of my inquiry came through, no one was terribly interested. It seems some students were sitting levels beyond their capabilities.
The National Debate proved a huge success. Nicol and I were out and about looking incredibly busy speaking at endless conferences about what to do next, while actually doing nothing at all just now. It kept everyone nicely distracted for months. The only trouble was that too many people took us at our word and wrote in with responses. We ended up with 1,500 replies - far too many for the department to handle, so they had the brilliant idea of getting the nice people at Edinburgh University to look at them on the grounds that they could provide an "independent" report. Moreover, we had enough to let the parliament's education committee have some as answers for their Education Inquiry. I'm afraid responses there were a bit thin on the ground in comparison.
The answers to the debate are a bit of a mixed bag. It's good that comprehensive education got a vote of support but it's a bit of a nuisance people are still calling for smaller classes - that was our idea in 1997 and this debate was meant to come up with new ideas. Also the request for less assessment is a bit rich - particularly as we've just set up an action group on assessment in order to make the whole system work better. Anyway, we need assessment, otherwise we couldn't set targets and have league tables to check how well everyone is doing.
However, we are now moving forward with a new and absolute winner of an idea. It's "flexibility" and it seems to offer a solution to nearly everything. Our first shot was the idea of "entitlement". John Mulgrew came up with that in his review of modern language provision. He suggested that, rather than modern languages being a compulsory subject in the first four years of secondary, all pupils should be "entitled" to study them.
A lot of schools immediately interpreted this to mean that languages were simply offered as an option and we got into trouble with Douglas and his crew at HMIE (what a picky lot they are!), who said that schools had to justify not teaching modern languages to third and fourth years. However, we've refined "entitlement" to "flexibility", and that's working much better. Indeed, it earned widespread praise. The "flexible curriculum" allows authorities like Glasgow to put on vocational courses while others such as Falkirk are sending some youngsters off to FE college.
Then we have "flexible funding" when we give headteachers more control of their money and we're no longer the bad guys telling them how to spend it. We have "flexible entry" into the exam system as more and more schools give up Standard grade and use the National Qualification courses instead. I can even encourage some schools to try out streaming as a way of improving standards under the banner of flexibility and escape criticism for abandoning our comprehensive principles - who, moi? Yes, "flexibility" is an absolute winner.
Prize for PPP
Talking of winners, PPP has really delivered. We have every authority falling over itself to put in bids for new PPP schools. When the Audit Commission report came out giving PPP less than total praise, it was fortunately so complicated that few understood the argument and we have steamed ahead. All the Glasgow secondary schools are now up and running and most people seem very pleased with the result. Mark you, some people will always criticise. Whereas in the past the constant moan was that the old schools were freezing, they now have the cheek to complain that they are too hot just because there seems to be the odd tiny problem with ventilation in the new schools.
I think the inspection of the authorities has worked rather well. My impression is that it has certainly stirred things up, but that's no more than you'd expect with Douglas Osler as chief inquisitor. I was quite sorry to see him go. This new guy, Graham Donaldson, seems quite pleasant, but not so fierce. The TESS's unofficial league table of authorities was quite amusing because this time it wasn't us who were making the comparisons. What do they say about imitation being the best form of flattery? Goes to show the impact league tables are having on everyone's mind-set. Did you notice how some of the authorities with the worst reports had high-performing schools? Scottish Borders springs to mind. Makes you wonder about the point of authorities, doesn't it?
Another area where you got all the high profile praise but left me to do the actual work was your Discipline Task Force. Do you realise that this year the number of violent incidents against staff actually went up from 3,083 to 4,501? There's only so many times we can say that the rise is due to better reporting.
Unfortunately, some people are beginning to link the problem with our policies on social inclusion and the figures do support this view, as 42 per cent of violent incidents in mainstream schools were due to children with special needs. But inclusion is our policy. We've said so and it's working.
The new community schools are beginning to work, and we've developed some good policies to help children in care and travellers. It's just unfortunate that the percentage of 16 to 19-year-olds neither in jobs, education or training has stuck at 14 per cent for the last five years. We could always stop publishing the statistics.
We stirred up a hornet's nest with the draft guidance on home education. We only wanted to make sure that all children were being educated and not submitted to some cranky let's-love-nature experience. From the reaction of the home educators you'd have thought we were planning to round them up and put them in some dreadful "3Rs" concentration camp. Actually, the authorities didn't much like the guidelines either, as it would have meant them spending a lot of effort chasing up very few children. We've quietly buried the guidelines for now - seemed wisest. Mark you, parents in general are a bit of a problem. They added their penny's worth to the complaints about McCrone - apparently in some schools the number of parent-teacher interviews was being cut. Then, when we set up a review into school boards in response to a quite reasonable request from Ann Hill, the other lot got all huffy and complained we weren't being fair. I ask you, when are we ever fair?
I have to say, I admire your stance on sectarianism, but it's a bit difficult to know how to deal with it in my education remit, when there's the tiny issue of Catholic schools. Many argue that segregated schooling leads to sectarianism, yet there's evidence that Catholic schools are rather good at the old "raising attainment" bit. Those in deprived areas get better exam results than non-denominational schools in similar areas.
Edinburgh City Council proved that you get between an angry parent and her child's chance of stardom at your peril - even if it is only on the family video. The score was parents about 70,000, Edinburgh Council nil, with a singular absence of wise men in any kind of starring role in the East.
All-in-one FE sector?
Still, the problems I've had to face seem quite manageable compared to Iain Gray's. I had a look at his end-of-year report on FE colleges and it seems to be an unrelenting litany of debt and incompetent management. Merger seems to be the answer. Perhaps we could merge them all into one Scottish FE College. The one bright spark on the scene is the amazing success that the colleges have had with asylum seekers - a success replicated in Glasgow schools where these clever youngsters have actually managed to improve the exam results in some of the most deprived schools in Scotland. Perhaps we should offer to take in a few more as the best way of meeting our national priority to raise standards.
Well, Jack, I hope you found this report satisfactory. I realise that you're too busy actually to read it yourself and have probably used a ghost reader. That's OK because I was too busy to write it and, in the tradition of all Ministers, have had it ghost-written. Of course, I used best value and put it out to competitive tender.
Cathy The Minister would like to thank Judith Gillespie for submitting such a cost-effective bid and gratefully acknowledges the value added by her services