Discussions will go on, but little will change

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
This week, we are one year on from the SNP's famous victory which led it to form what is now called the Scottish Government
This week, we are one year on from the SNP's famous victory which led it to form what is now called the Scottish Government. What has it meant for Scottish education? Has your world been turned upside down?

From where I'm standing, nothing much seems to have happened, certainly nothing to warrant the epithets of "radical" or "controversial" that education ministers have courted in the past.

Having had a raft of education policies developed by Mike Russell for the 2003 Holyrood elections when John Swinney was leader, they have now had the chance to introduce them - and have cried off.

Sure, there was a lot of talk about reducing class sizes, but that idea had never been worked out in any detail. The sheer scale of the capital investment that would be required to deliver the policy (pound;32.5 million in Glasgow alone), together with the potential for parental revolt (for which read electoral suicide) once the implications from catchment area changes were understood, always made implementation unlikely.

Being a minority government has, in the end, suited the SNP on several occasions, providing an excuse to run away from commitments when common sense or a little research would have told them their sound-bites were unaffordable, unworkable or both.

The abolition of the graduate endowment was a singular but strange success as it was only achieved with support from its greatest adherents, the Liberal Democrats, who performed a spectacular U-turn and decided it was a tuition tax. To add to the circus, the tax's most vocal critics, the Tories, voted with Labour to retain it. The dropping of the commitment to abolish student loans and reintroduce grants was as speedy as the idea was stupid, having all the look of an electoral bribe that would never be delivered.

When in power, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were never short of ideas for changing Scottish education, sometimes retreating into the old mantra of repealing former Tory reforms, sometimes bringing in genuine "progressive" thinking.

Going by recent experience, there is every reason to believe a future administration involving Labour or the Liberal Democrats would still wish to make further changes - and would not shrink from doing so.

The Tories used to say they want to change Scottish education and one suspects that their current retreat from anything too radical is merely an attempt to be loved. Still, one could expect them to support anything that would give parents or schools greater powers at the expense of councils or the Scottish education department itself.

It can, therefore, be said that the SNP best represents the forces of conservatism in Scottish education, almost to the point of being laissez-faire. The do-nothing, hands-off approach does not sit easily with Scottish politicians, and so there will be many consultations and strategies to discuss. But when push comes to shove, the advantage of cosying up to the local authorities and the Educational Institute of Scotland will govern how the party thinks and acts.

Now we learn that the much-vaunted Scottish Futures Trust - the vehicle by which the SNP hoped to replace the heavily criticised but effective PFIPPP policy of the other parties - is practically sunk before it has been launched. The consultation response, released under what can only be described as the cover of darkness, shows yet again that SNP education policies are as sound as going to sea in a sieve.

Where does all this leave the party? Pretty much without an education policy it can call its own. For the foreseeable future, the civil servants and quangos can be expected to draft the ministers' announcements.

Not too many surprises should be expected then, and I suspect, now he is back in charge and enjoying life as First Minister, that is pretty much how Alex Salmond prefers it.

Brian Monteith once had a student loan: it was called an overdraft.

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