20 years on, the cycle starts again

1st August 2008 at 01:00

The wheels of Scottish education turn slowly; they always have. From conception to implementation, the replacement of Ordinary grade by Standard grade took a school generation. You could have started primary school, gone on and left secondary and not known about it.

People who arrive on the scene and try to increase the pace are seen as dangerously impatient and not to be trusted. The mention of former Tory education minister Michael Forsyth (pictured) in education circles still has some normally granite-like establishment experts reaching for the vapours.

It mattered for nought that Forsyth had enjoyed a genuinely Scottish education at Arbroath High, and then St Andrews at the same time as First Minister Alex Salmond, Labour MP Mark Lazarowicz and BBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor. The civil servants, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and union leaders all wanted a cosy relationship with a Tory toff such as Ian Lang or Lord James Douglas- Hamilton. The fact that these agreeable fellows had limited personal experience of Scottish schooling was probably seen as a disadvantage to be exploited.

It was Forsyth who, knowing that as a minister his chances of being in post for more than two years were slim, rushed in legislation that first created school boards and then gave them the power to become independent of local councils, but within the state system. The unions quickly coined the phrase "opting out". That was enough to frighten the horses that wanted to trot, not gallop, and the policy was hardly used.

Education was never off the front pages in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The Teasmade would go off with the welcoming sound of Forsyth announcing yet another initiative to give pesky parents a voice in schools, or devising some way of establishing what we now call "outcomes" after 10 to 13 years of schooling.

Union officials must have feared morning papers upsetting their breakfasts with leaks and announcements of proposals for further education vouchers or more pupil testing.

All this served to show how misleading political terms are, for it was the unions and Cosla who were the conservatives, not Forsyth, who was a true old-fashioned liberal radical in the Scottish tradition. Cosla was at that time the unofficial Scottish opposition, except for the week of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, when it pompously took upon itself the job of telling the government how it should run its affairs.

I recall those vibrant, exciting days because I was recently reading online how the Scottish Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, is the subject of a whispering campaign. Apparently she is too good a listener - code for "she's gone native" - and will be replaced by former shadow education spokesman and TESS columnist Mike Russell.

I can sense the hairs rising on the back of Ronnie Smith's neck. Once let loose in the education kindergarten, the silver-tongued Russell will be right into the sandpit, elbowing everyone else out of the way. He is the closest the SNP has to a Forsyth; he's dangerous because he has ideas, and when he doesn't, he's not too proud to purloin one and call it his own.

Scottish education seems to move in cycles: a minister comes in and disturbs the classroom. He is replaced by someone with a calming influence, who is, in turn, replaced by another unruly minister, and the process begins again. A sort of educational Groundhog Day.

I feel for Hyslop. She's not had long enough to do nothing and do nothing well.

Alex Salmond must be a man in a hurry. What did they give them in St Andrews in the Seventies? And why did Mark Lazarowicz not drink some of it?

Brian Monteith, whose first job was opening Michael Forsyth's post at Westminster.

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