Advice ignored at ministers' peril

12th May 2000 at 01:00
DEVOLUTION is irreversible. Some government initiatives, like nationalisation 50 years ago, can be changed, but once a parliament or an assembly is set up, it would be seen as an assault on democracy to remove it.

Even in Northern Ireland there is growing optimism that direct rule will be only temporary.

The question in Scotland, Wales and now in London is what elected representatives do, in terms of producing legislation - or, where that level of devolution remains unattainable - in exerting influence.

North of the border, the Executive, a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, introduced a major education Bill in the first months of the Parliament. Intended primarily to focus on school standards, it also extends the scope of the General Teaching Council (approaching its 40th birthday) and scraps the existing method of settling teachers' salaries. The history of administrative devolution in Scotland, which allowed even a Conservative Secretary of State to reject MacOFSTED and continue with Her Majesty's Inspectors, has been extended. Pre-devolution, Scottish education legislation at Westminster was slow. Now there is no delay.

Two other significant changes: the education Bill was preceded by extensive consultation, including tapping children's opinions about what they think makes for a good school and good teaching. An the backbench committees set up to initiate proposals as well as to monitor ministers and officials are proving effective. They provide a sounding board for all sorts of interests and pressure groups, and they have already shown that their advice is rejected at ministers' peril.

The most embarrassing defeat for the Executive was engineered by the sole MSP representing the Scottish Socialist Party. Tommy Sheridan's measure to scrap sale of debtors' household goods was accepted by the parliament, having already been recommended by backbench committees, ministers had foolishly ignored.

Education in Scotland and Wales is likely to diverge further from the English "norm". But that is most likely in terms of the school curriculum, assessment and other areas which do not involve significant expenditure. Scottish schools will not suddenly become more lavishly equipped than their English counterparts. Teachers' pay bills will remain proportionately much the same north and south of the border, although there may be different views about the performance-related element.

The Scottish Executive chose not to exercise its freedom to vary income tax levels by up to 3p in the pound. Gordon Brown, the canny Scottish Chancellor, continues to call the shots on his native heath as elsewhere.

Willis Pickard is Editor of The TES Scotland.

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