The 2010 report card

24th December 2010 at 00:00
Jobs for probationers, university tuition fees, blue-skies thinking? We intercept the 2010 report card of an Education Secretary

Dear Alex

This is my first report card on how things have been going with the poisoned chalice (sorry, portfolio) you so kindly gave me exactly a year ago. Let me begin with what we policymakers like to call "context".

With the usual modesty which is my default position, I think I can safely say things have been going well - whatever impression you may have gleaned from the headlines and the best efforts of the Parliament's Mr Curmudgeon, my Labour opposite number Des McNulty.

Of course, my sense of my own achievements is partly a reflection of the fact that I have been able to put my inheritance behind me. I mean that I have not been bound rigidly to our manifesto, to which my predecessor was so tightly handcuffed.

Poor Fiona (who I'm glad to see is now a happy culture bunny) was so saddled with all these bewildering pledges that something had to give - and what she had to give was her job. I hope you don't feel, Alex, that I'm distancing myself from our 2007 election commitments which you played such a key role in drawing up and that this is therefore a criticism of yourself; perish the thought.

I've also had a better experience than poor Fiona - I must find another description - because, as Education Secretary, I am no longer the only one of your esteemed Cabinet ministers who has been through the wars this year. You yourself have had to deal with the legacy bequeathed by your former colleagues (I refer, of course, to bankers), "Teflon" Nicola has had a few wobbles over alcohol pricing and dodgy constituents, Kenny's prisoners keep coming back to haunt him - and even John has shown he is not the safe pair of hands everyone thought he was. Only Richard seems to have avoided the accusation of being all at sea - quite an achievement for the fisheries minister.

So, to get down to business:


With Stewart, it was the snow. For me, it's been teaching jobs, although it's not cost me my job - so far! More precisely, it was the lack of teaching jobs which, as you know, I chose to call my personal "heartache". Don't mention sleepless nights - I think it was my wife calling on me to "do something".

No matter how much I beat my chest, blamed my predecessors, castigated Westminster, cajoled our council "partners", the pesky malcontents seemed to think it was entirely my fault. They were all at it, encouraged by GTCS surveys, TESS surveys, you name it. How on earth could I be held responsible for Labour and the Lib Dems pumping teachers irresponsibly into the system, not to mention being tripped up by the recession? Our local "partners" even refused to borrow pound;10 million to ease out the older codgers from the profession - but perhaps "borrow" is a dirty word these days, thanks to your former banking chums.

Anyway, I think we got the better of my detractors, with John's master stroke on council funding: do what we ask on probationers' jobs (and the rest) or we'll cut your budgets by another 4 per cent. Brilliant - it's called "partnership".


This has gone the way of all past education reforms - nobody is happy, except the fine chaps in Monifieth High. You're probably not up on the detail of 5-14 or Higher Still, but it was the same then: put in more resources and they want more; delay the timescales and they want more delay; draw up an action plan (one of my many) and some threaten action; canvass the views of parents and you're accused of electioneering in winnable SNP seats (perhaps canvass is the wrong word).

Even my piece de resistance - getting the inspectorate off the backs of secondary schools to help make the curriculum even more excellent - got a less than fulsome response. Bring back the inspectors, it seems, all is forgiven: give me a break.


I have to report that, just like your bruising encounter with Mr Trump, this is an issue that has come rather close to home - my own home, to be exact (what are these Argyll SNP councillors up to?) It's a no-win situation for any education minister: if I adopt a hands-off policy, I'm accused of sacrificing rural schools; if I try to rein in council plans (as with our council "partners" in Glasgow, Highland and the Western Isles), I'm accused of riding roughshod over local democracy. I have to confess I'm caught between a rock (Argyll) and a hard place (the Accounts Commission). My wife's doing OK, though, having been transferred to acting head of a "safe" school.


Strangely, this is one issue that has calmed down. Perhaps it's because people think it's far too costly to reduce classes when there is no money. Or perhaps I've lowered the bar of expectation to such an extent that they just forget about it. So my compromise with our Cosla "partners" (20 per cent of P1-3 pupils in classes of 18 or under by this August) could be counted a stunning success. In any case, I have already moved the goalposts ever so subtly by emphasising better pupil:teacher ratios instead of lower class sizes - as recommended by the man who reviews everything for us, David Cameron (not THAT David Cameron, of course).


As you know, I've been encouraging councils to indulge in blue-skies thinking on how they run education. I was particularly pleased that the SNP leadership of East Lothian Council took the lead, so you can imagine my chagrin when their blue skies clouded somewhat. All is not lost, however, since the council is pressing ahead with delegating more powers to headteachers, and it is talking with Midlothian about a single education service. Education in Stirling and Clackmannanshire, my ever- reliable TESS tells me, will also be run by one director from March. A former director, the wise Keir Bloomer, has even cast doubt on whether our "partners" should run education at all. Stirring times!


These have been a feature of my year, and the arguments that rage over them do me no harm at all; I can always find some comfort by delving deep. There are more pupils in smaller P1-3 classes (OK, so we are nowhere near our target). There are more schools delivering two hours of PE (OK, fewer pupils). The Pisa tables show Scotland's education decline has been halted (OK, we've made hardly any progress). The fall in probationer jobs has bottomed out and the tide has turned (OK, that might have been my Pisa defence). The quality of teachers is vital (OK, we're cutting the chartered teacher scheme and CPD budgets have taken a hit). All P1-3 pupils to have free meals (OK, only in West Dunbartonshire, according to The TESS).

But there's a limit to the usefulness of statistics, which is why I called time on Pirls and Timss, to the inevitable chorus of ridiculous suspicion.


Well, we're not having them, not on my watch. Some people seem to think my green paper, like John's draft budget, is no more than a pre-election stunt. How wrong can they be! What's the problem with setting out a whole range of options, and then engaging with Scotland (remember the "national conversation"?) to forge a consensus to achieve a long-term sustainable future for higher education in Scotland? Does that sound like a manifesto commitment to you? Of course not. And then I've challenged the other political parties to sit down with us in February to have another conversation about another set of plans for higher education. There's no harm in talking.


I think it's particularly incumbent on an education minister to be a learning minister, and that's why I've been working my socks off criss- crossing the globe to see how they do things in Finland, Sweden, Ontario and China. It's no more than one of my Labour predecessors, the esteemed Peter Peacock, used to do, and I don't recall Labour making a fuss about that. Nothing has come of these trips yet, but watch this space.


Thank goodness for our college folk. They are so grateful for everything we do for them - and we're asking them to do a lot, as more and more students beat a path to their doors to beat the recession. One of their top chaps even said the colleges could "do more with less". And that fine fellow, Ray Harris of Scotland's Colleges, called for FE to be more "streamlined". College mergers, I'd call that - they're certainly talking my language.

I hope you noticed that I administered a hefty vertical with my boot to the City of Glasgow College to make sure its staff got a good deal; it was a condition of my approval for the grand scheme. And what do you know, they've just announced an agreement on pay and progress on conditions. But I'm keeping a close eye on this one: the last thing we need is for the mega-college to become the Edinburgh tramworks of the FE sector.


I'm sure I startled the education world with a few of those. I really wrong-footed a few people by announcing the merger of HMIE with Learning and Teaching Scotland, and MSPs will surely see the sense of it: how can they argue against beefing up quality improvement? Then there was my decision to see how we could make devolution work better, a familiar SNP theme of course; in this case, I'm talking about school management and I've handed the review yet again to David Cameron, which should further enhance his retirement fund.

So that's it, Alex. I hope you appreciate that the stewardship of Scottish education is in safe, even inspirational, hands - not forgetting those of Adam and Keith (whom I wish well in his new post of supervising the gritters) and his successor Angela. I'm heading home to Argyll now - and I don't wish to see a single councillor.

Bliadhna mhath ur


Original print headline: You'll like this ... not a lot, but you'll like it

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