Cutting edge of fresh ideas

2nd April 2010 at 01:00

Is it possible that Scotland's resistance to educational change is wilting in the heat of spontaneous combustion at Holyrood, and that the tectonic plates are finally shifting?

I wrote last month, and before, about how Education Secretary Mike Russell and others have been receptive to new ways of managing schools so that they have more flexibility and greater responsibility.

I would suggest the prospect of heads being able to select teachers for jobs, rather than take what they are given, is one idea, and the ability to adopt a classroom discipline code of a school's own making, rather than one that suits a council's statistical manipulations, is another.

Now, the Scottish Labour Party is searching its soul by asking how schools should be managed. We have recently seen it considering proposals to remove the responsibility of the 32 councils for education - with the apparent backing of former Education Minister Peter Peacock.

Just in case anyone thought Mr Peacock was the "settled will" of Scottish Labour, old-school George Foulkes laid a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for independent schools to be brought into the state sector - and managed by the local authority.

A heinous crime had thus taken place - a public debate about policy in the Labour Party. I can't remember such a thing since Tony Blair removed Clause IV, which would have nationalised the banks (why bother when bankers could do it for themselves?).

Such open discussion is very rare and, while Lord Foulkes may have been joshing with colleagues, there is no doubt that the heart and soul of the Labour Party is about municipal control and the debate on education represents a wider one about who controls Labour in Scotland.

Gordon Brown from London? Iain Gray from Edinburgh? Steven Purcell - oh sorry, eh, Eddy McAvoy from Hamilton? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?

None of this would have happened if Fiona Hyslop had still been Education Secretary. The Tories have banged the drum about empowering schools at the cost of local authority dominance since the Parliament began, but few politicians have been willing to dance to their beat.

Mr Russell's appointment changed all that. It's not that he's a Tartan Tory or even a Tory sympathiser: but he's willing to hear fresh ideas, and that has been the catalyst for other parties reassessing their positions.

With the SNP-run council in East Lothian wanting to explore greater devolution to school management, Mr Russell had a much-needed political rationale to keep his own party sweet.

Then, not to be outdone by Mr Russell's visit to Finland and Sweden, the Liberal Democrat leader went to Sweden too.

Meanwhile, the Tories, ably led by former George Watson's teacher Liz Smith, can take much of the credit for persevering with the school empowerment policy, despite the doubts of party leader Annabel Goldie (who briefly dropped it in the 2007 manifesto).

All this open-mindedness clears the way for significant changes after the 2011 Holyrood elections, but it leaves Labour with a problem: what should it say? Should it defend what is almost becoming the indefensible status quo, or loosen the control of Scottish councils where Labour still has great influence?

That Labour was willing to introduce proportional representation to local elections and weaken its grip on councils suggests Mr McAvoy and chums are expendable - again. If education becomes a deal-breaker in coalition negotiations next year, expect Labour to turn to Mr Peacock, in the library, with the dagger.

Brian Monteith believes `Foulkes sake' is an expletive, not a misspelling.

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