A test of the politicians' mettle;Opinion

25th June 1999 at 01:00
EVERY year in the USA 3,000 children die by the gun, put down like vermin, victims of homicide, gang warfare, a deprived environment, poverty or the drug culture. Death by shooting is, for example, a daily fact of life for children in the Bronx. What proportion of these small deaths are really taken seriously by state prosecutors, I wonder.

Perhaps street children are unknown in Florida, but it is quaintly illogical that in the land of orange blossom and sunshine retirement an unwise British couple currently faces five years in prison for child abuse. Their crime, leaving their sleeping children while they went briefly outside.

The real child abusers would be any court which removed from circulation the parents of five-year-old Maisie and the infant Daniel. Let's hope that Scotland's American visitors never face such unfriendly treatment in Scottish courts.

Child abuse, hopefully, will not prove an early test of mettle for Holyrood-on-the-hill. A more subtle challenge awaits Donald Dewar, who to date has shown an almost Prescott-like disdain for the crafts of lobbying and public relations. Mr Blair understands these arts, though currently he risks losing his usual touch with the genetically-modified food debate. But these are skills which do not necessarily come easily to homegrown politicians.

Will the affable Sam Galbraith, new minister for education, have the ability to project ideas and vision over the heads of parliamentary colleagues and catch the interest of the country beyond? Will he discern the public mood and carry it forward, take time and the media to explain to and discuss with classroom teachers just why the moment is now ripe for moving forward on modernising the profession?

"Closed Minds'' is the minister's name for the group currently taking the floor for the teaching unions. Behemoths, incapable of giving leadership, Ross Martin, former management negotiator, calls them. There are indications that their music is unlikely to come top of the Government's chart, or their lyrics offer much to raising standards.

The saga of reform of teachers' pay and conditions goes back nearly a decade, with senior members of Scotland's directorates waging a longhaul battle to convince their successive political masters that the sine qua non of a modern service lay with grasping the nettle.

Reform would tackle problems of recruitment, retention and reward for Scotland's teaching force. Reform could point the way towards a high-morale profession. Sam Galbraith has now echoed these views, and promised teachers that reform and high status will go hand in hand.

Ultimately the management side of the old Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee failed to sell Helen Liddell's package to vested interests. Nor did it succeed in reaching over union heads to demonstrate to teachers that their very real concerns were being addressed with both good money and promotion prospects. No effective consultation took place with the very people most involved.

It seems unlikely that this government will allow the Millennium Review of pay and conditions to be abandoned. There is every indication that it is seen as an essential partner of the expected Education Bill.

The Blair regime is elsewhere pursuing radical programmes of change in many areas of British life without frightening the horses. Scotland's Parliament needs to master policy formulation and presentation to teachers and the public beyond, so as to allay fears and to draw in the potent weapon of reasoned opinion.

There is a crying need to present the arguments with a sense of vision. Will our Parliament make a difference to education? It is already on test.

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