The caretaker minister departs;Opinion

14th August 1998 at 01:00
IT MAY have been Brian Wilson's Westminster ambition as much as his personality that left the echo of a caretaker in post. An energetic, listening but ultimately laid-back operator, he was always careful to skirt round vested interests, and lacked the political hard edge of the true reformer. This naturally endeared him, the more in departure, to union interests.

Brian's tenure of the education brief was characterised by the often uneasy Scottish introduction of New Labour policies - usually carried forward from the previous government. He trod the path of compromise and consensus with such circumspection that he runs no risk of being remembered as a radical reformer.

Fate did not deal him a favourable hand. Saddled with dinosaurial muscle-flexing in councils and unions, plus a devolution Bill to clog up parliamentary time, there was no initial high-profile platform from which to make his mark.

Sadly it did not take long to become clear that despite, for example, 1997's poor international showing in science and mathematics, Labour's manifesto flagship policy was not in line for the same high-profile endorsement north of the border.

Over the past 15 months Labour's national policies have dribbled in here via a series of low-profile announcements, giving some impression of lack of creative energy. Wilson awarded himself little chance to gain the edge of parental and public support in the continuing union skirmishes over such issues as target-setting and Higher Still.

Of course, the English context is different. But the contrast between the educational profile of the Dewar-Wilson ticket and the Blair-Blunkett agenda is indeed startling.

Parents in Scotland also identify with many of UK Labour's concerns: phonics for early reading, mental arithmetic, setting, rigorous and compulsory teacher assessment, a leadership fast-track scheme, performance-related pay, master classes for gifted children, serious question marks over the old comprehensive certainties. Herein lies the nub of Scottish Labour's educational problem and Helen Liddell's challenge.

Perhaps the greatest divergence lies in southern acceptance of the value of published test results. Nothing in English education has done more for the underprivileged than the stark exposure of failing schools. By contrast no such concept upsets the Scottish education establishment more. Arguably, the English are coping more effectively and with less fuss with the thorny business of tackling value-added.

Instead, Scotland took a giant step away from opportunity for all with the extraordinarily damaging proposal that school targets - and therefore teachers' expectations - should vary with geographical and social factors.

The minister was proud of Gaelic, nursery and early intervention innovations. But perhaps, as he departs the front-line fray against the Nats, he may just regret not having given Scotland an educational overview to mark his passage. It seems he always knew he wasn't staying, but he could have left his mark with the vision thing.

Here are a few suggestions. Targets - a damp squib under Wilson. Some serious intention on lifelong learning. Action to empower the General Teaching Council to structure quality professional development, instead of backing down at the first fence of council outcry.

He could have tackled the flat career structure which resulted in unpromoted classroom teachers reaching the top of the scale before they are 30. He could have bitten the bullet of outmoded conditions of service which have so tied the hands of management and mitigated against children's interests in the running of Scottish schools. He could even have acknowledged that paying peanuts may just attract monkeys.

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