Alexander arrives as voice of learning class

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
THE appointment of Wendy Alexander to succeed Henry McLeish as Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning brings to the post someone who is the very essence of new Labour, with a particular passion for making a reality of the knowledge economy forged by a digitally switched-on populace.

It is unlikely to be long before colleges and universities, which come within her ambit, hear the vision statement. She has already been in print, early last year after a trip to California organised by Scottish Enterprise, declaring that "Scotland's working class of today will increasingly become the learning class of tomorrow" and "what people learn increasingly dictates what they earn".

Ms Alexander will be able to exercise her enthusiasms after having been given responsibility for the Digital Scotland initiative, which she takes over from Peter Peacock, the former Deputy Children and Education Minister. She effectively succeeds him as the Executive's "e-minister" where her excitement about a wired-up Scotland will know no bounds.

The FE and HE sectors can also expect her to carry with her the themes of social justice and equality which were central to her period as Minister for Communities. These are part of her 'Smart Scotland' agenda as she warned last year that "the linkages between information poverty and real poverty are becoming clearer".

Ms Alexander, who is aged 37 and is the MSP for Paisley North, will also be responsible for the careers service, science, training and the New Deal as well as her economic portfolio which means looking after the national enterprise agencies, inward investment an tourism. With only one deputy minister as opposed to two under Mr McLeish, she could be spread very thinly in these areas, particularly since Alasdair Morrison continues as the departmental junior with exactly the same specific remit for the Highlands and Islands, tourism and Gaelic.

But the new minister, an international management consultant before settling for domestic political bliss, has a reputation for drive and intelligence, even if her critics are also irritated by what they regard as her new Labour political correctness. Her spell as special adviser to Donald Dewar when he was Secretary of State for Scotland during the design and implementation of the devolution legislation placed her at the very heart of the project, along with Mr Dewar and Mr McLeish.

Her first passion, for the Parliament, is therefore second to none but second appears to be her conviction that it must use education as "a fundamental instrument of equality".

Other than that, she does not have a "past" in terms of any known views on the education sectors which now come under her command. The one hope in FE must be that she has not formed any lasting impressions from the past history of Reid Kerr College in her Paisley constituency, which was going pear-shaped as it was gripped in financial and managerial turmoil while she was running for her parliamentary seat.

Whatever Ms Alexander's new responsibilities throw at her, it will take a lot to have the near-destabilising impact of the "Section 28" fuss which undermined her politically in her previous post. A routine jobs crisis will be mild by comparison.

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