A baptism of fire for the people's voice

21st July 2000 at 01:00
Teacher turned MSP Ian Jenkins says the Parliament's education committee deserves a positive end-of-term report

WHEN, after 35 years, I contemplated leaving the classroom for the "corridors of power" andor the Chamber of Horrors, a wee voice in my head kept muttering:

"There's no fool like an old fool!" In truth, with only a couple of years to go in the education system's carbon-encrusted frying-pan, I probably felt that a few years in a bright new fire offered an interesting, if rather masochistic, alternative. So I jumped.

I was lucky to land in the Parliament's education, culture and sport committee and now, not much more than a year later, it seems a reasonable time to reflect on how things are working out.

No one can say we have been idle. Since September we have conducted an inquiry into the funding and management of the national arts companies; discussed the establishment of a national theatre company; instigated inquiries into the Hampden Stadium controversy, the state of schools' infrastructure across Scotland, and, perhaps most substantially, into provision for children with special educational needs.

We have commissioned reports, each headed by an individual member of the committee, on the problems facing rural schools, on the Argyll and Bute school closure programme, on the Scottish film industry and on sport in schools.

In addition, of course, we have taken the Schools Standards Bill through all its stages and it now stands ready to go on to the statute book. In fact, we have probably taken on too much and we must beware of raising expectations that, simply by taking evidence and calling witnesses, the committee can solve every ill.

But it seems to me that, although we have no magic wands, we can make a difference. Cathy Peattie's report on school closures revealed a need for clearer guidelines on closure criteria and consultation with parents. Fiona McLeod's effective advocacy has changed our thinking on consultation with young people.

Amendments to the schools Bill, which had a firmly centralising agenda, enabled more scrutiny of ministers' decisions and, in committee debates, Peter Peacock, the Deputy Minister, gave assurances on reviewing pre-school funding arrangements for potential deferred entry to primary school and offering clearer guidance to local authorities for dealing with home education requests.

Almost certainly our views on special needs provision will offer a broader perspective and a more subtle analysis of this complex issue than is articulated in the well-intentioned, widely accepted, but necessarily legalistic, clauses in the recent Bill.

In these and other examples, although the committee has not thrown its weight about and has not entered into power struggles with the Executive, it has begun to exert its influence on ministerial thinking and on decision-making.

One of the most fascinating aspects of our work, and essentially one of the most important, has been the taking of evidence frm an astonishingly wide range of witnesses. Starting with the Scottish Opera crisis, the committee has adopted a scrutinising role, seeking information and explanation in a public forum which simply did not exist before devolution.

So we have interviewed top people from the arts and education and broadcasting, as well as ministers, asking them, with varying degrees of success, to explain their policies, their decisions, their views.

This scrutinising role must be exercised with care. We must not become a kind of "thought police". Nevertheless, scrutiny is an important new factor in the way our democracy works under devolution. It seems right to me, for example, that a Scottish parliamentary committee ought to be able to ask fair and reasonable questions of, say, the chief inspector of schools and of the director of the Scottish Arts Council, on a regular basis, expecting open answers and genuine discussion.

As well as being a questioning committee, I hope we have also been a listening committee, open and accessible to groups and individuals whose views and opinions deserve to be heard and ought to be listened to. And from time to time something special is said which shifts the way we see a particular issue. I remember particularly the evidence by Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council in the debate over Section 28; and the contribution made by Mark Macmillan, a pupil from Donaldson's School, in our discussion about the place of special schools in SEN provision.

Both in written and in oral evidence, as well as on our visits to schools across the country, and in meetings with special interest groups, we have been able to see and hear stories of individual and institutional successes and failures. We have, I hope, realised that simplistic solutions and sound-bite politics, while they may have their place in the debating chamber or the media, are not the answer in the real world.

Within the committee there is still a party political dimension, particularly on issues raised by Executive actions or initiatives. But behind the public stances and the press releases, there is a shared appreciation that together we can help to raise issues, to shape the agenda and to offer a cross-party insight.

And there are plenty of issues on the way. We can look forward to some contentious discussions on the McCrone report into teachers' pay and conditions, the Schools Scotland Code and the forthcoming cultural strategy. But in the longer term I hope we can make a helpful contribution to the SEN agenda and, for my own part, I would like us to stand back a little and take a look at the changing shape and direction of early years education.

So, there is good work to be done. And, old fool though I may be, I am enjoying my own wee bit of the fire.

Ian Jenkins is Liberal Democrat MSP for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale.

Teacher turned MSP Ian Jenkins says the Parliament's education committee deserves a positive end-of-term report

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