A Thatcherite among unbelievers

11th April 1997 at 01:00
The revolution may have lasted 18 years but the impact has been concentrat ed in the last 10, dating from Michael Forsyth's arrival at the Scottish Office in May 1987 as education minister, a post he held for only two years.

The previous eight years had been relatively placid. There was a low-level row over the creation of an open market in parental choice, ushered in by George Younger when he was Secretary of State in 1981. Placing requests, arguably the seminal piece of Tory legislation, were born. But a patrician incumbent in St Andrew's House made few waves.

A suggestion by Alex Fletcher, Mr Younger's education minister, that the logical outcome would be the closure of unpopular schools as parents voted with their feet, which now has an air of inevitability about it, was greeted with derision at the time. Mr Fletcher was clearly the first Forsythite.

Other ministers, such as Allan Stewart and John Mackay, came and went. Mr Forsyth then arrived, energetic and ideological. He was a product of small-town Scotland and of the aspiring working man, Thatcherism's advance guard. Arbroath man had met Grantham woman. For the garage owner's son, read the grocer's daughter.

Some who have followed him closely have read his progress as the epitome of that background, the aspiring Scot rooted in old-style academic rigour determined not to be a "subsidy junkie", rather than the product of a St Andrew's University free-market hothouse that imbued him with the ideas of Adam Smith.

On the other hand, there was a Thatcherite agenda. Mr Forsyth was seen not as Scotland's man in the Government, but as the Government' s man in Scotland. If there was a driving force that distinguished that agenda, it was the dismantling of Labour's twin political powerhouses in the local authorities and public service providers dominated by the unions. The distinctive characteristic that set him apart from his predecessors was that he embraced this with enthusiasm. Even a more relaxed Forsyth Mark Two remains a free-marketeer as he demonstrated again last week when he defended nursery vouchers as "liberating parents from officialdom", his most constant theme of all.

There is little doubt the consequences are here to stay. Who now doubts the permanency of school boards, primary testing, school performance tables, teacher appraisal, devolved school management? They are as likely to be his lasting memorials as the Craighalbert conductive education centre in Cumbernauld, a reflection of an unexpected interest in special education.

The establishment of school boards, the right of schools to opt out of council control and the overhaul of the curriculum-assessment regime provoked gibes of "Anglicisation" from the Educational Institute of Scotland. But as one senior official recalls, the Forsyth approach was not one of "we must legislate", but "why don't we?"

School boards did not live up to his hopes. They remain stubbornly reluctant to acquire any additional powers and parental democracy has stagnated from an insufficiency of candidates for school board elections. Mr Forsyth did have an early setback. His proposed "ceiling" powers of maximum intervention failed to get off the floor. But they were craftily replaced with the right to acquire "delegated powers". Although few boards have sought these powers, the ultimate tribute came last May from Malcolm Green and Elizabeth Maginnis, Labour education leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh, who rebuked their party for its proposed replacement of boards by "commissions".

Neither has opting out worked as Mr Forsyth wished. A tally of three self-governing schools over seven years (out of a total of 24 ballots which produced nine results for opting out and 15 against) is not a resounding endorsement. As for city technology colleges, does anyone remember them?

And if he is now seen as more relaxed and less impetuous, having achieved Cabinet rank at the age of 40, he is scarcely less confrontational. Compulsory appraisal, compulsory testing and a compulsory pay regime are now in his sights. "You see we haven't run out of ideas," he said at January's launch of the education White Paper. His party's manifesto was "a very exciting package, full of ideas", he said last week.

Mr Forsyth's critics may see this fatal attraction to the power of ideas as the flip side of the inflexible ideologue. But his record has often demonstrated that he can allow pragmatism to get in the way and he never quite acquired the austere reputation of John Redwood, formerly his right-wing counterpart at the Welsh Office.

While many officials can be found who were on the receiving end of Mr Forsyth's notoriously short fuse, there are others who have been exhilarated by his appetite for argument, debate and decisiveness. "He never made me cynical about politicians which I could not say about some of his colleagues," was one admiring tribute.

Mr Forsyth's public image, however, remained stubbornly negative over these past 10 years. In retrospect, it is remarkable that a man who carved out a career in public relations could not have done a better job on himself.

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