ABC of winning elections

5th January 2007 at 00:00
As Hugh Henry, the new Education Minister, prepares for an education-dominated election, we reveal what he might conceivably have written in his New Year epistle to the First Minister. Illustration by Jovan Djordjevic

Dear Jack,

That's quite a challenge you've set me - take over education from a highly popular minister and somehow make my mark before the general election in May.

Everywhere I go I am regaled with enthusiastic memories about how good Peter Peacock was, how he knew his brief and how valuable it was to have the same person in post for so long, blah de blah. Follow that, as they say.

In the circumstances, it was very helpful to get pound;40 million to distribute directly to schools - should get all the headteachers on side - and a further pound;20 million for school buildings. However, I'm not sure that the pound;50 million for the Orkney PPP scheme will buy very many votes - how many people live there?

To give Peter his due, he's good at targeting a large number of potential voters. Take parents, for example; there must be more than a million of them so his Parental Involvement Act was a stroke of genius. If they all gave us their support, we wouldn't need a coalition.

However, the omens are not good. If the handful of parents who speak for the two existing parent bodies can't get their act together and agree on a new national body unless we get a UN peacekeeper in (oh, sorry, that says "facilitator"), then what hope is there of getting all the rest to agree on anything?

As for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council saying our proposals for making placing request appeals more cuddly is hypocritical because appeals are rarely successful - don't they realise that people accept "no" as an answer much more readily if they're sitting in a comfy chair and have been given a nice cup of tea?

I see that the focus on pupils has been the low achievers: children in care and something called the Neat group. I had to ask my officials who they were. I assumed it was the trendy ones and I was looking forward to meeting them. What a disappointment to learn the word is Neet and that they are the youngsters who are not in education, employment or training.

They're probably in their beds then. Why are we bothering? Do we expect them to vote? Perhaps they should all be given compulsory citizenship training and told that, if they don't vote for us next May, we'll keep them in school until they're 18.

I have to say education has more acronyms than any other of the many services I've worked in. I'm not sure that the situation is really helped when you take SSDN and convert it into "Glow". I was none the wiser and could only think of worms.

As for "Emma", I had to ask my officials who she was. I got told that it would be a young lady who was pregnant and eligible for one of Gordon Brown's new maternity child allowances but who was also still at school and therefore entitled to an Education Maintenance Allowance.

Given that pupil numbers are set to fall from 713,000 in 2005 to 611,000 by 2024, it probably is a good idea to pay school girls to get pregnant. I see that some 40 per cent of students get EMAs, although not all the recipients are girls. My question is: "Are we giving the money to the youngsters who will vote for us?" I've asked my officials to investigate.

Of course, my main area of concern is the teachers. Family pressure is making sure of that. It was not very helpful of Audit Scotland to come up with a report questioning whether we had got value for money in the McCrone deal. Forget the pound;2.15 billion cost and focus on the 23 per cent pay rise, the 35-hour working week, the 22.5 hours class-contact time and guaranteed placements for probationers. Of course we got value for money - ask my daughter!

As for Brian Monteith re-running the Audit Scotland report as a parliamentary audit committee inquiry, I had to wonder what he was trying to achieve. Is he trying to show the Conservative Party what a mistake they made in throwing him out or is he just out to cause trouble?

Such criticism won't win him any votes from teachers (all 53,000 of them), whereas my well-timed announcement that I will review the chartered teacher programme surely will. The odd pre-election hint of funding for some of the modules won't go amiss and the suggestion by Bruce Robertson, the new ADES supremo, that local authorities might pay for modules if they got to choose which teachers embarked on the programme was very helpful, despite the harrumphing from the EIS. It would stop all those older teachers embarking on the chartered teacher programme just to enhance their pensions.

Meantime, I think I'll quietly forget Peter's suggestion that we put under-performing teachers back on probation. We've had enough trouble finding places for all the probationers coming out of teacher training without adding to the load.

Discipline is certainly a hot topic. The lack of it is a recurring theme amongst teachers, usually accompanied by a demand for smaller classes.

We'll ignore the inconvenient fact that schools with the worst problems often already have small classes.

The headlines imply unmitigated violence but, when anyone bothers to investigate, the main problem seems to be youngsters talking out of turn - bit like MSPs. The solutions seem to be many and varied, ranging from breaking up lessons with regular spells of physical activity (the boot camp approach) to using restorative justice or simply removing the offenders from the classroom. Peter was smart enough to hand control of exclusions back to headteachers and the figures show a sharp rise in both permanent and temporary exclusions, so we can't be blamed for inaction.

I'm tempted to pass the blame on to parents, but my first sortie into that territory got me a sharp rebuke from one parents' organisation and I do have to keep sight of the numbers for next May - 53,000 teachers against 1 million parents.

When I saw the enormous file marked "Health", I had a sense of dej... vu and thought that I'd wandered back into my old department by mistake. No, it seems that mens sana in corpore sano is very much the motto of the moment and, whether we're getting the children to eat healthy meals or run around the playground more, the education brief is right there at the heart of ensuring healthy bodies.

We have so many irons in the fire - more PE, weighing children to check obesity levels, raising the age for buying cigarettes and making nutritional standards statutory. It's a bit of a shame that the youngsters themselves seem to be voting with their feet and that the uptake of school meals has fallen in secondary schools with the introduction of healthy menus - a case of "you can take the horse to the water but you can't make it drink".

I see Glasgow has resorted to bribing youngsters with the promise of iPods and such like. I must say I'm attracted to the idea of providing healthy meals free of charge, but I'm a bit wary of jumping on a bandwagon that has had such vocal support from the Nats and Tommy Sheridan, whatever party he's in these days.

Whoa there, what's this with the curriculum? I spent a whole car journey reading what is proposed and emerged none the wiser. Every subject under the sun is busy lobbying to preserve its place in the new scheme, while many gurus are calling for us to ditch subjects in favour of developing multiple minds. Add in that the curriculum will be delivered through "experiences" (I hope not out-of-body experiences) and I'm left with a picture of a many-headed hydra which will be difficult to sell to the public at large.

The case was not made any easier when May Sweeney, heading up the reforms, advocated enterprise education and said: "In many cases, you could take enterprise and put citizenship in there, or you call it enterprise citizenship". Such clarity does not help. I'll stick with the well tried argument that it's about improving literacy and numeracy, with a dash of science thrown in for good measure.

Have you noticed how sensitive local authorities are now? I suppose it didn't help when Peter suggested that there could be better ways to deliver education than through 32 different authorities. When the headteachers waded in, calling for the number of authorities to be reduced or for education to be delivered through area boards, there was a distinct touch of frost in the air.

However, it was Graham Donaldson's launch of the HMIE report, based on the first round of authority inspections, that really caused the proverbial to hit the fan. It highlighted the fact that some authorities were simply not up to the mark.

I decided not to accept my invitation to Cosla's Christmas drinks reception. Their angst is perfectly understandable; on the elected front, many councillors face being deposed next May under the new single transferable voting system, while the officials are facing the squeeze through Tom McCabe's drive for efficient government. Frankly, I'm glad I got out of local government when I did.

However, councils do have their value - take school closures, for example.

When Audit Scotland nips at our heels over the amount of money spent keeping small schools open, it is very useful to hand this hot potato over to the local authorities to resolve.

It's unfortunate that they then sit and do nothing. Presumably they are also weighing up the electoral disadvantage of offending their constituents.

That is where STV will be so useful. Councillors will no longer be closely tied to their own small patch and, while closing a school of 10 or fewer pupils might anger the parents of those youngsters, their anti-pathy will not weigh so heavily in the new STV voting system.

Well Jack, child protection is proving the surprise issue. I would have expected that a bill about keeping children safe would have generated as much warmth and support as mention of motherhood and apple pie.

Unfortunately, it seems that a huge number of people will be caught up in the system - we're back talking a million again - and the measures are regarded as excessive. Worse! Apparently it is stopping parents helping out at their school discos - surely an error for which governments should fall.

Anyway, the voluntary groups - children's charities, sports groups, parents groups, mental health groups, even the Prince's Trust and that troublesome woman, the Chil-dren's Comm-issioner - have got their act together and lobbied the parliamentary education committee to think again.

I was so glad that it fell to Robert Brown to argue the case for the Bill.

You know the Lib Dems do have their uses. Are you sure it would be wise to do without them? They are very good for taking the flak. If you have any doubts, think of Tavish Scott at transport and the second Forth Road Bridge.

Finally, Jack, I think I have found the answer to your ambition to make Scottish education the best in the world: deport the natives and bring in the Chinese.

A recent study found that the person most likely to do well in NQ exams was female, young, not registered for free school meals, living in a rural area, and Chinese.

Forget Gaelic-medium education; let's go with Mandarin.

Yours aye, Hugh

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