A private meeting led to public furore

23rd November 2012 at 00:00

It's been a dire week for education secretary Michael Russell - or should that read "few weeks"? Conspicuous by his absence at key events like the launch of the long-awaited National Partnership Group report on teacher education on 6 November and the annual School Leaders Scotland conference last Thursday, where one of his ministers had to deliver his speech (page 6), very little has been seen of him - at least in the flesh - since he departed for Malawi at the end of October.

Instead, he has been plastered across the newspapers, doing battle with Kirk Ramsay, the chairman of Stow College who was forced to resign last week over that infamous smartpen incident (page 8), and apologising profusely to the Scottish Parliament for misleading it over the rise - sorry, fall - in the further education budget.

The Sunday papers went to town on the bitter personal row that grew over a point of principle (the secret recording of a "private" meeting with the minister without his permission) while more important issues such as the drastic cuts to FE funding at a time of major restructuring of the sector had to take a back seat before flaring up in his face. The secondary heads didn't seem too happy either, having to settle for a junior minister when they had questions about exam choices that they would have liked to put to the man himself.

Then, on Tuesday, union talks with Messrs Russell and Swinney over teacher pensions, due to take place the following day, were cancelled (page 5), provoking the ire of teacher leaders but giving the minister a fortunate breather to prepare for yesterday's debate on college funding. Never in his three years as cabinet secretary for education has Michael Russell's position looked so precarious.

Labour education spokesman Hugh Henry has performed well, holding the minister to account, but as TESS went to press, Mr Russell was still in post. What's more, many were hoping he would remain so, for this is not an education secretary who could be easily replaced.

While some may call Mr Russell arrogant and others consider him a bully, usually he has a masterful grasp of his brief, which is what makes this misinformation so astounding. It is hard to imagine who else could steer the major reform of the 3-18 curriculum and the regionalisation of Scotland's colleges concurrently. And few in the education establishment would wish to see that put to the test.

So yes, the minister has performed badly and political damage has been inflicted on the government in a series of "own goals". But outside Parliament there are urgent matters to be addressed, such as the continuing rise in youth unemployment (pages 12-15). So hopefully things will be allowed to settle and normal service can be resumed.


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