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Peacock does them proud;Jotter

A CLEAR blue Shetland sky is no doubt as rare as 60-plus teachers turning out to hear a Government minister. But Peter Peacock, the Deputy Children and Education Minister, must be a draw.

The honour of presiding over the first roadshow selling the Education Bill to the lieges fell to him last week in the Lerwick Hotel - starting "at the top", as education convener Peter Malcolmson described the Scottish island south of the Shetland mainland.

Even Maggie Reyner, the primary head on the frequently inaccessible island of Foula, way out west, felt compelled to hop on a plane to see Peacock strut his stuff. She did not need to feel guilty about leaving anyone in charge since the school roll "has just gone up to three".

Reyner explained that Tuesday is about the only day when flight times allow her to leave after work and return the following morning. Director of education Jim Halcrow looked relieved that he would not have to bill the Scottish Executive for supply cover.

Halcrow was no doubt also relieved that last-minute efforts to get headteachers to drum up an audience had paid off. There was no three-line whip, of course - directors of education just don't do that sort of thing. But he quipped: "If you thought I was taking names at the door as you came in, you're right."

Peacock battled mainly with his new varifocals rather than aggrieved teachers, but he quickly got both his audience and his notes in his sights and gave a commanding performance. Jotter's abacus counted 18 questions.

Surprisingly, it took a while for the obvious one to rear its head and only then obliquely, in the form of a query as to why the education authorities wanted larger composite classes.

"This is one of those questions I'm going to duck," Peacock replied cheerfully, adding that the current negotiations with the unions were at a "delicate stage".

He might have added that Sam Galbraith, his boss, had already waded in and that perhaps two ministerial interventions in one week was quite enough.

There were other attempts to trap the politically unwary such as a doubtlessly innocent question on how Peacock would assess the current mood of teachers. They have come through a period when they have felt very beleaguered, he replied. Not so, he was told, they are feeling beleaguered.

Peacock also had to bat a question about the reign of Helen Liddell as education minister. Was she not guilty of the teacher-bashing he had been condemning?

Not at all, he said. She may be "forthright" but she's one of us (we paraphrase).

So the Peacock message for teachers, to be repeated the length and breadth of Scotland as the ministerial roadshow comes to a hotel near you, is to keep cheerful and not to forget the big picture because the Government loves schools - providing they deliver its agenda.

And so off they went into that good balmy Shetland night, appearing perfectly comfortable despite the prospect of having their eyes to the hills and their noses to the grindstone.

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