Are two ministers really better than one?

10th November 2000 at 00:00
THE education sector (or the "learning industry", as some would have it) cannot complain about lack of media coverage, what with the resignation of Chief Inspector of Schools Chris Woodhead, who has apparently left his post to spend more time with the Daily Telegraph, the appointment in Scotland of new Ministers for Education and for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning and the continuing saga at the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The first and last of these are hardly "good news", but in the first case try telling that to teachers, lecturers, chief education officers, professors of education, trade unions and sundry other educationists in England who have had to listen to Mr Woodhead's critical outpourings over the years. For them Christmas has come early.

I have never met the man, but a friend of mine who was an OFSTED inspector told me that for him Mr Woodhead's most notable quality was his zealotry in pursuit of fixed ideas.

Which takes us on neatly to our own blaming and shaming saga - the SQA fiasco. It was inevitable that as Jack McConnell assumed the mantle of Education Minister he would wish to put his own stamp on things - a firm stamp in the case of the raft of SQA issues. The review into the matter by Deloitte and Touche has provided the green light for action. Further concerns over the problems with appeals and with fears about the 2001 exams no doubt helped set the context for the "sacking" of the SQA board - though as I write this I understand that not all have been sacked.

I would expect more action soon - the direction which Higher Still will now take requires clarification: indeed one can see the old battle lines being formed once again - vocational versus academic and secondary versus further education. If we are to reap the benefits of Higher Still, and I believe there are significant benefits to be derived from it, someone will need to clarify the issues to be taken forward and separate them from purely SQA problems.

Meanwhile a number of people in the pper reaches of the Scottish educational establishment are still announcing that Higher Still was not the problem and that the only problems which exist are SQA related. But this should not be solely about blame - the actions taken by politicians and others need to be about helping people to find solutions. What is not helpful is the lack of frankness, in some quarters, about what has happened.

The new minister obviously has a big job on his hands. It could have been bigger, however. Have you ever wondered why the Minister for Enterprise has Lifelong Learning in her title whereas the Minister for Education does not? I understand Mr McConnell's brief includes responsibility for Scotland's dealings with the European Union and for external affairs, but how useful is it that Education is dealt with by a different minister from the one dealing with lifelong learning?

Even without the present difficulties, there is a danger in education being treated solely in terms of schools and with what is taught before working life, while lifelong learning is seen as what happens after people leave school. In any case, colleges of further education and higher education institutions which are the responsibility of the Lifelong Learning Minister cover pre-employment learning, learning in employment and even learning post-employment as well as learning that might not have anything to do with employment and might even be (horror of horrors in a Calvinist country) for pleasure.

I would have thought of lifelong learning and education as a continuum not easily dichotomised. How can education be separated from lifelong learning, especially a lifelong learning that is linked with enterprise, skills and training? Maybe it's a Scottish thing, this wish to separate and divide - elect and non-elect, sheep and goats, academic and vocational, Celtic and Rangers, but it's about time we stopped.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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