Education: in the thicket of it

1st January 2010 at 00:00

Well, that was the year that was. I hope it was a good one for you and not one you're glad to see the back of - if it was an annus horribilis, then surely it can only get better this year?

Scottish education grabbed the national headlines often enough - but being in the teeth of the worst recession since the Depression of the 1930s, it is no surprise it was usually for the wrong reasons. Closures, redundancies and resignations were last year's thinning of the educational copse.

Sadly, I fear there is still more bad news to come before it gets better, although just as there are some so-called green shoots of recovery in the economy (that old "talk things up" chestnut) we may find some buds pushing through the manure of despondency to cheer us up. Don't ask me where, though.

The acorn that is Mike Russell, the new Education Secretary, is one English Oak that hopes to grow - and grow - in his new post. Mike and I used to debate regularly in Parliament when we were both shadow education spokesmen, and he is nothing if not creative. Unlike that veritable Arctic Pine, Nicola Sturgeon, his predecessor in that opposition education role, Mike was not one to give you the needle but preferred to debate ideas - and so the policy on smaller primary class sizes was born.

I always thought the proposal was deeply flawed, not because it lacked educational merit, but because the SNP never fully understood the physical limitations that school buildings placed on the concept; if they did, then they certainly weren't admitting it. This meant the cost of providing extra classrooms or even schools was grossly underestimated and the local impact of capping numbers never given consideration.

The fact that siblings could be forced to attend different schools or families could not attend their local school was a bad news story waiting to happen. While falling rolls have given some room for councils to manoeuvre, it is the recession that is being blamed for a failure to deliver the policy - letting the SNP avoid blame for a suggestion that was never fully thought through. How ironic then that Mike Russell has replaced Hazelnut Hyslop to prune back his government's ambitions.

The trouble with education in the Scottish Parliament is that too many politicians cannot see the wood for the trees - Elizabeth Smith, the Conservative schools spokeswoman, is one of the few exceptions, having been a secondary teacher herself. She had a good 2009, regularly harrying the hapless Hyslop with experience-based comments. Smith's tongue would cut through Hyslop's official jargonese like a chainsaw lopping off branches - methinks her trips into the forest next year promise to bear fruit, rather than the tired old chestnuts you get from so many of her peers.

Thinking of nuts, one can't accuse the Liberal Democrats of being conkers because, on the national stage, they make so little impact I can't even recall who their education spokesman is, never mind the tree with which I might playfully associate him or her. Maybe I should settle for a fruit tree, such as the Lemon.

That redoubtable Douglas Fir, Murdo Fraser, talks loftily of devolving power directly to schools, so it was odd that he attacked the SNP as "Stalinist" for thinking aloud that educational delivery could be centralised. How else can a government deal directly with schools if it does not first centralise the budget distribution and policy in its own education department? I don't think he would be calling the devolved - yet centralised - schools system in New Zealand or the Netherlands "Stalinist" if he were to study it closely.

Who then will be this year's unpopular Poplar? Who will need a Fig leaf to cover their embarrassment? Much fun is promised before the electorate plays lumberjack in 2011 and cuts the politicians back down to size.

Brian Monteith's favourite tree is the Beech - and he has found a nice one at Maracas Bay, Trinidad, he can recommend.

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