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The settled will settles in

Neil Munro charts the impact of the second year of the Scottish Parliament

THE headlines were predictable this week, as they have been throughout. "Holyrood failing public expectation" was the Scotsman's offering, a state of affairs to which its own coverage has significantly contributed.

In a sense it was a perfect reflection of the turmoil which has been the scourge of devolution since its birth: the headlines have shaped public perception. Small wonder therefore that the public's perception is negative.

The press was reporting on the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey which revealed that, while 71 per cent of Scots at the time of the referendum thought a separate parliament would improve the quality of education, only 43 per cent do so now; then, 19 per cent thought it would make no difference against 49 per cent now.

There are, of course, mutterings about the quality of politicians and their decisions at all levels. It was ever thus and for ever more will be so, no doubt.

But if it is commonplace to say that the Parliament's educational life for the past few months has been dominated by "exams, exams, exams", arguably that has made it responsible for the detailed scrutiny which galvanised ministers and left young people with at least a fighting chance of getting reliable results this year.

We now know as much about how the Scottish Executive Education Department goes about its business as we do about the conduct of the exams, which is entirely due to relentless parliamentary inquiries. One can only imagine how much would have gone unnoticed under the cursory Westminster process.

It is the process by which the politicians on the Mound do their work that interests Ian McKay, assistant secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland. Two key achievements of the first two years - the outcomes of the Cubie committee on student finance and of the McCrone inquiry into the teaching profession and its aftermath - were inclusive and responsive approaches to policy-making, Mr McKay believes.

This is, of course, not an unadorned blessing for the Executive. "That process of getting everyone on board and going out to listen to what people are saying is the real gift of the Parliament," he comments. "But it is likely to lead to a real divergence of policy-making north and south of the border in education as in other areas, and that has obvious implications for fiscal policy."

The other clear implication is for ministers as they tread the delicate line between Scottish political opinion and diktats from the Treasury, which has its own education unit as has Downing Street. So far Jack McConnell has been "Mr Goody Two-shoes", sorting out teachers' grievances while holding their hands and patting them on the head.

Getting on top of the exams crisis, reshaping the inspectorate, delivering a pay and conditions settlement for teachers and tackling discipline have not exactly left Mr McConnell with much time to indulge in "blue skies" thinking, of the sort his Westminster counterparts are about to embrace. But his Green Paper later this year, to be built on the five "aspirational" priorities for education, will provide a platform for some upward gazing.

Yet again, however, it is the parliamentary committees - education and lifelong learning - that have proved the Parliament's worth even if, apart from the exams inquiry, their deliberations go almost completely unreported. The inquiry into lifelong learning next session will be of considerable significance, providing an opportunity to bring alive an often lifeless concept. The education committee has ongoing matters of importance such as school infrastructure, school closures and a children's commissioner which could lead to the committee's first parliamentary Bill.

There have been moments in the chamber - but they have been episodes of confusion rather than clarity. The best have been where politicians speak to the issues rather than shout at them or each other: the debate on special educational needs last month was one of the most impressive.

A couple of small vignettes, insignificant in themselves, spoke hugely. Unions representing staff within the Scottish Qualifications Authority said management only started taking them seriously when they discovered they were to give evidence to the education committee. And who would have thought that, after a parliamentary debate initiated by the SNP, the Executive would agree to launch a review of school swimming no less.

So political pressure is more easily applied in the new Scotland. That, of course, has its downside as well, with every aggrieved cause expecting to find a ready ear. Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, an inveterate Parliament watcher, believes the expertise of the committees needs to be strengthened. She suggests they ought to have permanent special advisers who should be permitted to question witnesses. MSPs, she adds, "have missed a trick partly because their knowledge has been lacking".

Critics may continue to deride "the settled will of the Scottish people" as more style than substance. But, as Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the EIS and no natural friend of governments, put it last year: "The simple test for me is whether I would want to wind the clock back - and the answer is an unambiguous no."

Leader, page 20

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