Election campaign update

29th April 2011 at 01:00
In the final week of the election campaign, Labour's Des McNulty and the SNP's Michael Russell go head-to-head

Des McNulty Education spokesman, Labour

Two of your big manifesto promises - to keep university education free and focus on early intervention - match SNP priorities. What makes Labour policy distinct?

We have unique proposals for increasing teacher numbers, vocational education and skills training. We want to make university and college work better for people - the SNP has very little to say on FE and HE, other than fees. The Tories, to be fair, are talking about more health visitors, but we have by far the strongest policies on early education and targeted early intervention.

How realistic is it to maintain free university education, and why have you changed your mind since describing a graduate contribution as `inevitable' last year?

That was said in the context of people talking about having to find pound;400- 500 million; we now have an expert review which came out with a significantly lower figure. I have no doubt this situation can be bridged for a period to come - our position is no fees for this parliament - but we will have to see what happens thereafter. We have not done what the SNP has done and said the stones will split before we consider anything else.

When can teenagers expect guaranteed apprenticeships, and will there be jobs at the end?

Our aim is to implement apprenticeships for all suitably-qualified young people in the lifetime of the parliament. Whether there will be jobs depends on having the right policies for growth.

You plan to send 1,000 teachers into schools to improve literacy and numeracy. Shouldn't this be the job of all teachers?

There are so many targets and objectives for schools, that there is a degree to which there has not been sufficient progress on literacy and numeracy. It can only be a good thing that we're saying these must be seen as absolutely essential to what schools deliver, and that we're putting additional resources into tackling what is a disfiguring situation in Scotland.

Labour would abolish the Scottish Futures Trust, despite the savings it has achieved. Does this spell a new wave of public private partnership school-building projects?

Not necessarily. SFT was introduced as a funding mechanism and turned out to be an advice service; it's not clear how it's adding value to local government. We'd like a non-ideological discussion with councils to see what they think is the best way forward.

Would you give heads power to hire and fire?

No, but heads and their staff should have more freedom in use of resources and curriculum planning. Heads and principal teachers should be involved in recruitment, but they have that now.

You want parents to be more involved in education. What if they wanted to run a school outwith local authority control?

I went to the conference at Queen Margaret University when (East Lothian Council education director) Don Ledingham was making his argument, and to be honest no teachers or parents wanted this. It's very hard to see where the demand for this is coming from, other than Mr Ledingham himself. I would be worried about duty of care - parents may want the best for their own children, but may not want the best for every child.

Can you guarantee to protect the key elements of the McCrone agreement?

I'm not going to negotiate teachers' terms and conditions through the pages of TESS. The Government, together with local authorities, has identified changes on financial grounds without discussing any of these issues with the unions. I'm not opposed to looking again at the agreement, but it would have been better if the McCormac review had a remit agreed by the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers.

Can you promise that the freeze on the chartered teacher programme will not become a permanent end?

Yes, because the idea of the chartered teacher is fundamentally good.

How would you ensure there are jobs for post-probationers and out-of-work teachers?

We're the only party committed to having extra teachers. The SNP Government has said to councils, if you freeze council tax you can do whatever you like with budgets; we would want a different type of agreement with local government that actually delivers our core national policies, such as driving up teacher numbers.

Supply teachers feel they came off badly in recent pay and conditions talks. What support would you offer?

I would say, blame the SNP. It's their initiative. I believe in negotiations on conditions of service taking place through the national negotiating mechanism.

Which Labour proposal would make the biggest difference to education in Scotland?

Our "First Class Fund", which is going to provide additional resources to schools to develop excellence, particularly in vocational education. It will work a bit like Schools of Ambition and Determined to Succeed. The idea is for high-quality vocational provision to start from S1-2, rather than S4-5.


  • An Early Years Bill to establish common support measures from pre-birth until three
  • Investment in early education and targeted early intervention
  • 1,000 new jobs for specially-trained literacy and numeracy teachers
  • "First Class Fund" to implement vocational education from S1
  • Schools "compelled" to monitor bullying and share this information with parents
  • "Suitably-qualified school leavers" guaranteed apprenticeships
  • No university tuition fees for Scottish students
  • Scrap the Scottish Futures Trust and explore other ideas for school- building
    • Michael Russell Education Secretary, SNP

      Is there a new `big idea' in your education manifesto?

      Finishing the roll-out of Curriculum for Excellence is the big idea in Scottish education.

      Your efforts to reduce class sizes were often thwarted by the Scottish Government's inability to compel councils to do so in a tight spending environment. What would be different if you were re-elected?

      It has to be done by negotiation, but I think the purpose and the benefits of it are now clearer to every council. I'll continue to press this.

      How does your plan to make it the norm for every child to learn two languages, in addition to their mother tongue, sit with plans to give headteachers greater autonomy?

      Very comfortably, because what we need to clarify is the exact relationship between Government, local authorities and schools in clusters. One of the roles of government is to share policy objectives.

      University admissions policies have been criticised for appearing to penalise curricular flexibility under CfE. How do you square that circle?

      I think some universities have been utterly wrong in the approach they have taken and I have spent a lot of time continuing to persuade them and will continue to. They are autonomous institutions but some of their criteria are backward-looking and do not fit CfE.

      Under your plans to reform school governance, would you give heads the power to hire and fire?

      We need to take David Cameron's report - our David Cameron, not the other one - to the next level. I can see where power to employ is important at cluster level but I would want to do this as much as possible by negotiation with our present partners.

      Recent surveys suggest the majority of English universities will charge the maximum tuition fee of pound;9,000 - do you still believe the gap to be plugged for Scottish higher education is only pound;93 million?

      The work that was done by the joint taskforce, by ourselves and Universities Scotland came up with figures that I stick to. The figure you are quoting is within that, but south of the border there has been an upward pressure on fees. There is a very clear indication from the UK Government they will not fund beyond the limit they have set, so I think the universities are engaged in brinkmanship and it's not likely to succeed.

      Has the concordat made the life of an Education Secretary easier or more difficult?

      There are some things it's been possible to do through the concordat that would have been impossible otherwise, but I think we will have to refresh our relationship with local authorities because there are areas of it that are seen not to be working. I think there are also issues such as class sizes where it's been difficult to get full value out of the educational policies we've set. We need to look at that after 5 May and make sure we are able to implement these things.

      How will you make sure there are jobs for all post-probationers in the years ahead?

      By bringing numbers into balance. The agreement we have reached with local authorities on teacher numbers will bring them into balance in the coming years. If we keep the numbers coming through in balance with the number of vacancies every year, then we can do that.

      Supply teachers feel they have come off badly in the recent negotiations about pay and conditions. What would you say to them?

      I'm sorry they feel that. Sadly, we've needed to make some changes because of the financial situation we've been forced into. The total cost of these changes is pound;45 million out of a total salaries budget of pound;1.6 billion, so that is a modest sum, but unfortunately it has to touch some part of the profession.

      Can you promise that the freeze on the chartered teacher programme will not become a permanent end?

      I'm not going to second-guess McCormac. My view is that were it to survive as a programme, then we have to change it to some extent because it's not worked as well as expected.

      In terms of education, what was the greatest achievement of the SNP's first four years in Government?

      Restoring the principle of free education has been vital. Continuing with the roll-out of Curriculum for Excellence - we've greatly enhanced it and I want to see it through. Driving down class sizes has been important - we now have the lowest class sizes we've had in primary - it's not gone far or fast enough, but it has moved in the right direction.

      And the biggest mistake?

      Perhaps underestimating the financial difficulties that were going to come. In educational terms, we now need to think very carefully about delivery mechanisms. I'm sure local authorities are appropriate delivery mechanisms but there will need to be reform as to how education is delivered in Scotland.


      • Creation of a pound;50 million early years Sure Start Fund
      • Increase childcare support to match the best elsewhere in Europe
      • Look at ways of expanding free school meals
      • Curriculum for Excellence will have at its core a renewed emphasis on literacy and numeracy
      • Introduce a norm for language learning based on the EU 1+2 model, where every child will learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue
      • Develop Scottish studies in schools, including Scotland, Scottish history, literature, Scots and Gaelic languages, culture and current affairs
      • A pound;50 million Young Scots Fund, focused on sport, enterprise and creativity
      • Rule out tuition fees or a graduate contribution for higher education.

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