Cheer and jeer at the past year
Hello again, Alex, I say "hello", but we've been a bit like ships passing in the night this year, what with my trips to India and yours to Dubai and China. Such a coup, your panda diplomacy. But I just hope you realise I'll be getting even more emails now from the redoubtable Judith McClure who I'm sure you know is chair of the Scotland China Education Network - and she usually expects a reply.
I've decided once again to send you this report on my second full year as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning via the good offices of TESS - they would have unearthed it anyway.
Talking of that august organ, I see they called on you to recall your school days to mark their relaunch as a magazine. You revealed you had been strapped five times as a nipper and confessed it had been "richly deserved". This must be the only recorded instance of the media extracting a mea culpa out of you.
Of course, the year has been dominated for all of us by our election win in May. You saw off all your political opponents and so, may I say with due modesty, did I. Labour's Des McNulty and the Lib Dems' Margaret Smith were put to the sword by SNP candidates, as were two former parliamentary education committee chairs, the two Karens (Whitefield and Gillon) - quite a cull. Only Liz Smith soldiers on as the education spokesperson for the Tories, although she wanted rid of their very name.
Apart from the election, it's been an exceptionally busy year for me, Alex - and I appreciate your appreciation of this at Cabinet. OK, to put it another way, others have been exceptionally busy at my behest as committees sprang up all over the place - McCormac, Donaldson, Sutherland, Cameron, Roe, Griggs, 17 CfE "excellence groups" and my attainment group.
That's not to mention green and white papers and others of varying hues: on university funding, vocational education and college regionalisation.
I've even been keeping the flame for our bonfire of the quangos - is that still our policy? - by combining LTS and HMIE into Education Scotland. Immediately, that fine chap Bill Maxwell, transitional chief exec of the new body, helped me out by announcing a new "light-touch inspection" regime. Where did he get that idea? Even funereal Jim - i.e. Thewlis of SLS - looked pleased.
It's interesting, comparing this year with my report card last year, to see how many contentious issues have become becalmed on my watch - class sizes for one, and even teaching jobs (of which more later) and school closures. All kicked into the long grass, I like to think, by some nifty footwork on my part (if you can execute nifty footwork in the long grass).
Perhaps our master stroke was sweet-talking the EIS into an agreement - eventually - on our pay and conditions package with a pound;15 million sweetener (I never got to the bottom of whether your wee chat with Fraserburgh's own, the then EIS president Kay Barnett, had anything to do with that: if so, it was what your constituents in the north-east doubtless might call a "Trump card").
Anyway, the union recommended the revised deal, the membership agreed and Ronnie retired in triumph. It was a close-run thing, though, with malcontents taking to Facebook and Twitter to denounce him.
As for school closures, the whingers in Argyll and on the opposition benches kept firing accusations at me, ignoring the fact that I was intervening on the council's school closures plans as prospective parliamentary candidate for Argyll and not as the Cabinet Secretary or MSP; why can't people believe me? My crafty manoeuvre of imposing a one- year moratorium on rural school closures by appointing the Sutherland commission to make recommendations was a calming influence. The fact that Cosla president Pat Watters got apoplectic provided additional satisfaction.
WHO'S IN CHARGE?
And that brings me to the knotty question of who runs our schools? I've often said that, while I have the second-largest spend of anyone round your Cabinet table - some pound;8 billion - I hardly see any of it since around half goes into the local government coffers to be spent, allegedly, on education. It's not fair: Nicola would never put up with that in health.
I've challenged Cosla to demonstrate why councils should retain their control over schools. Of course, Cosla's Isabel Hutton, our SNP colleague, preaches devolution of schools to local government. I see myself as championing independence in all its forms, including that of schools from local government - or should that be "devo-max", Alex? We'll have to get to grips with this issue once the May council elections are out of the way: indeed, I said so myself in an interview with TESS on 29 April.
Anyway, our own David Cameron recommended in his report to me on school management that much more should be devolved. The directors of education in ADES were having none of it, retaliating by demanding rolling contracts for headteachers. Meantime, I've kept Cosla out of mischief by asking them to draw up fresh DSM guidelines - that should be a laugh.
But it's what happens IN schools that really matters, and that's why we've been pushing CfE so strongly - and, I believe, successfully - making sure, in particular, that teachers and parents get the message. So successfully in fact that I'm taking more of a back seat and letting young Alasdair take the reins - hence his punchy new title of Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland's Languages.
I'll still need to keep an eye on schools, however: we've got the McCormac and Donaldson proposals to kick-start. As though teachers' pension grievances were not enough, they are becoming restive over McCormac's report on Advancing Professionalism in Teaching. Judging by some of the responses, professionalism has a long way to go. The EIS is in terror of the F-word - not Finland, but flexibility. The very term seems to suggest to them that we plan to eat their young. I've told them I want negotiations on McCormac completed by next August, industrial action or not. You've got to be tough.
There's the attainment agenda as well. I'm damned if I'm going to be put on the back foot again when Pisa's performance survey of 15-year-olds is published in December 2013. So I'm setting a good deal of store by the work of my attainment group, which is due to hand in its homework to me any day now. I hope they've been out and about in East Renfrewshire: St Luke's High in Barrhead has a good story to tell. And I dare not incur the wrath of Maureen McKenna by ignoring Glasgow's efforts to move its schools "from good to great".
You thought I'd never get round to it, but 2011 has been a tumultuous year in the post-school field, which is why I'm taking a direct approach. On universities, I ruled out tuition fees for Scots students - long before, may I say, your "rocks melt with the sun" rejection of same. I also said other UK students would pay the full whack, as it has proved. But will there be any difference? Applications from Scots students for Scottish universities were down by 16 per cent at the end of November compared with the same time last year, despite our munificence.
Some unfriendly types are putting it about that this guarantee to our university students is being paid for by taking pound;74 million out of the budget for further education over the next three years. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've asked the colleges to enter into regional partnerships, and given them pound;15 million to ease the pain.
I thought my officials put it very well when they said that regionalisation "can strengthen the role and influence of colleges in local communities, help promote more coherent planning and delivery, and ensure sustainable funding". You might have spotted, Alex, that you need only substitute "councils" for "colleges" and the same argument could easily be applied to the running of our schools.
The year has ended well, I believe. Teacher numbers exceeded our target by 155 to stand at 51,286. And the picture for probationers, which used to keep me awake at night, is looking rosier: the GTCS survey at the end of the year reported an increase in the number with full-time permanent jobs from 16 per cent to 21 per cent. The fact remains that 66 per cent of new probationers were employed in some form or another on census day in September. OK, the class sizes story is uneven - average class sizes in primary were up but the number of P1 pupils in classes of 25 or fewer is well up (99 per cent compared with 87 per cent in 2010).
All my old Labour opposite number, curmudgeonly Ken, could come up with was harping back to our first year in power in 2007 and complaining that we were publishing too many statistics. I trust he won't take such a dim view of stats in his new job as his party's spokesman on finance.
And to really end on a high note, I read that the OECD's analyst Michael Davidson (a Perth lad) said that "Scotland can be proud of its education system" - Pisa or no Pisa. He was the selfsame chap who previously said Scottish education was "treading water".
So Alex, we move on to 2012 which brings us closer to 2014 and to the celebration of the 700th anniversary of Scotland's great triumph at Bannockburn - not to mention the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Ryder Cup in Gleneagles. All that should be enough to generate a "feelgood" factor for an independence referendum, if I may make so bold.
Meanwhile, best to you and Moira and the good folk of Strichen.