A voice for schools in the people's parliament

19th September 1997 at 01:00
Renewing the Catholic school The step has been taken quietly but decisively. In the end the people ensured that there was no slip-up as in 1979 and no doubting the scale of the mandate given to Westminster to lose its control of domestic Scottish business. Last Friday the result was greeted with widespread pleasure but also with restraint.

It had been awaited for so long that there was no real surprise except to media commentators from outwith Scotland. People also realised that the referendum was only a first step, a gesture with no constitutional or legal significance. Long debates in both Commons and Lords have still to come. The first elections to a parliament which has yet no home will not be for 18 months, and millennium celebrations will precede its first meeting.

The groundwork had been prepared during 18 years of Conservative rule. Whatever the much debated contribution of Tory measures to the Scottish economy, the treatment of public services - education, health and local government - was so distasteful to voters that few could doubt our ability to run things more efficiently. The universities, where unionism had run strong in 1979, have experienced administrative devolution and fared better than those south of the border.

The more widespread devolution has spread, the less fearful people are about their capacity to take further control. In Wales this week the referendum debates have included education and whether schools and colleges whose courses and exams are modelled on those of England would flourish under rule from Cardiff. In Scotland, education was not debatable territory. It was a first and obvious candidate for the Edinburgh parliament.

The concern now is to ensure that the balance of power is correctly distributed. The first elections will see parties arguing about how budget shares should be allocated and that will affect the decisions of the Scottish executive. Local authorities will strive to retain their domain but may come to regard MSPs' efforts at involvement as unwelcome intrusion. Schools could find that the devolution they have learnt to enjoy, or have had foisted on them, is no protection against the territorial aspirations of MSPs and councillors. No headteacher can serve two masters.

Since the referendum there has been well-meaning but vague talk of practising "new politics". The extent of bipartisanship will depend on the effects of proportional representation and the composition of the executive, but effort now should be put in to devising procedures to involve individuals and communities in the work of the parliament.

Policies must not be handed down by ministers waving a party manifesto or pursuing a personal ideology. The education community has to be consulted before decisions are made. That will mean committees on which parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians work together. It will also a mean review of policies and practice as a matter of course and not in response to alleged scandal or shortcoming. National bodies - for example, those on the curriculum, qualifications, technology and community education - will need to adapt to new ideas of openness. An assembly well balanced by gender will guard against nonsenses of Westminster flummery and fractiousness. Of the women MSPs, who hopefully will make up half of the total, a large proportion will choose to concentrate on issues of education, social work and health.

The media enthuse about the parliament revivifying Scotland. That will happen only if its members keep faith with ordinary people who last week set aside fears of another layer of self-regarding government and entrusted it with their concerns.

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