A few regrets, but it was 'a great job'

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Scotland's Labour education ministers give their verdict on their own performance during the BlairBrown years

The most testing issues for education came early on in the life of the Scottish Parliament - the near-collapse of the Scottish Qualifications Authority in 2000 and negotiations over a new deal for teachers. It was Jack McConnell, Education Minister in 2000-01, who got the political credit for his handling of these - although it was Sam Galbraith (1999- 2000) who paved the way for the teachers' agreement by setting up the McCrone inquiry.

McConnell recalls his first few months in office were dominated by "the need to rescue the reputation of the Scottish examination system: after a huge effort, changing the SQA management and board, bringing in new systems, involving users and monitoring progress against targets, in August 2001 we succeeded".

He is also proud of the role he played in orchestrating the pound;800 million deal on teachers' pay and conditions of January 2001. As a former teacher, he says: "I was determined to put the teacher back at the centre of teaching and to promote good headship."

While the teachers' agreement ushered in one of the longest periods of "peace in the classroom" (helped by another high-profile McConnell initiative, his discipline task force which pushed the issue to the top of the educational agenda), the most visible legacy of Labour's years at Westminster and Holyrood is the hundreds of new school and college buildings which sprang up.

Not surprisingly, therefore, a number of ministers claim the credit. Helen Liddell (1998-99), who became Britain's High Commissioner to Australia, says: "After four-and-a-half years in Australia, I drive around and find myself stunned by the quantity and quality of school buildings all over Scotland. When I remember the decrepit schools, I am delighted that I faced down critics and put new and refurbished schools at the top of the agenda."

Galbraith also recalls his pride in "rebuilding the fabric", McConnell notes the launch of the building programme during his watch in September 2001 and Cathy Jamieson (2001-03) says "the most important thing for me was instigating the school building programme which I was determined on, having been shocked at the physical infrastructure in which teachers had to work".

Jamieson, with her background as an advocate of children in care in her job with Who Cares? Scotland before entering Parliament, was associated with the "children and young people" part of her brief - appearing to sideline schools by declaring they would be the responsibility of her deputy, the Liberal Democrat Nicol Stephen.

But Jamieson's main contribution was to kick-start a "great debate" on education which, although often derided as window dressing, led eventually to Curriculum for Excellence.

The new curriculum is "the only winner for me", says Peter Peacock of his time in charge of education (2003-06). "Despite the many practical challenges, Curriculum for Excellence still holds the prospect of providing the stimulus and changed environment, to give professionals back their professional space, to be less prescriptive from the centre and to allow schools and teachers greater freedoms," he said.

An enduring theme of the Labour years, which has been carried forward by the SNP Government, is that of early intervention which Brian Wilson (1997-98) says was "the cause that enthused me most, offering a real chance to break the cycle of disadvantage for very young children and their families".

He adds: "There was a pilot scheme in Edinburgh which the late Elizabeth Maginnis (the city's education leader) took me to see. I was knocked out by it and thought this was the big one to go for. However, I moved on after a year and, next time I looked, it had been subsumed under a bigger, less focused heading".

Wilson and Liddell were the only Labour ministers with responsibility for post-school as well as the school brief (Donald Dewar's first devolution administration put lifelong learning into the economic portfolio).

Wilson expressed his enjoyment at "putting all the money it asked for in 1997 into the FE sector, much to its surprise and the universities' dismay. But I always thought FE delivered a great bang for the buck".

Regrets? They've had a few. For Galbraith and Liddell, they revolve around teaching as a profession. Galbraith suggests he "introduced the concept of CPD" to bring teachers into line with other professions, but regrets he failed to "beef up" the General Teaching Council for Scotland to deal with teacher performance and conduct. Liddell says she "completely failed to convince teachers that they had more to fear from not reforming the profession and the curriculum than embracing radical change for the benefit of pupils".

Peacock says he would like to have made more progress on redefining the relationship between local authorities and headteachers, "with the balance shifting decisively towards headteachers".

And McConnell? "I would have loved to have been Education Minister for longer than 13 months - it truly was a great job," he said.

So long, farewell .

What a young lecturer said in his contributions to The TESS in 1979-80 - aka Gordon Brown

- "what is needed most of all is comprehensive but flexible pre-school provision"

- "a scheme which retains fee paying and selectivity as its essential basis is as remote from encouraging real freedom as the very existence of private schools themselves"

- "the education system itself cannot fully compensate for or transform the major inequalities"

- "if Labour are to argue for public expenditure and high taxation, they must first make the case against inequality"

- "the Treasury has tended to get its figures wrong"


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