Erring on the side of caution

24th August 2007 at 01:00
Today marks 100 days in power for the SNP. Henry Hepburn takes a look at the new government's early performance

CANNY POLICY announcements and a pragmatic scaling back of ambition have characterised a solid start for the SNP government in education.

News of 300 new teachers and easier access to university for asylum-seeker children garnered good publicity, but will not cost the earth.

The grand plan to write off student debt has gone on the backburner and, to begin with at least, free school meals will only be enjoyed by P1-3s in selected deprived areas.

Meanwhile, Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Education, has impressed many in education circles with a willingness to listen to ideas and a minimum of political posturing. The lack of hubris has reduced the ammunition available to opponents.

They criticise the government for caution and lack of ambition, or for being too vague. Whatever happened to plans to do away with public private partnerships? When exactly will maximum pupil numbers in P1-3 classes be reduced to 18?

There is no fundamental shift in philosophy between the SNP and its predecessors in power, according to Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University. "It's a comment on how really remarkable the consensus on Scottish educational policy now is," he said.

He highlighted issues such as the teachers' agreement and the move towards a 3-18 curriculum.

"These things are not even on the agenda," he said. "It was taken for granted that they were sensible things to do."

He is encouraged that the SNP appears willing to listen to expert evidence, for instance, on targeting class size cuts at early primary. A government spokeswoman said the key to success lay in "early intervention" hence more teachers, smaller classes and free meals in the early years.

Now it is turning to less headline-grabbing but wider-ranging issues links between education and the economy will be addressed in the Skills Strategy for Scotland, to be published in a few weeks.

Hugh Henry, Labour education spokesman, said: "Fiona Hyslop has had nothing to say about discipline, and we are still waiting to see the substance of the SNP's skills strategy.

"With some minor tinkering, the SNP seems to be content to build on the work started by Labour, but is not prepared to deliver in the key issues which persuaded many to vote SNP the abolition of public private partnerships, writing off student debt, and effective early action on class size reduction."

Liz Smith, Conservative spokeswoman for children, schools and skills, said reducing class sizes might improve discipline, but was not enough. "There needs to be a much more structured debate on discipline," she said. "I think most parents see it as the main problem in schools."

She also wants the SNP to address vocational education, arguing that pupils should be able to leave school at 14 if going into suitable training.

Jeremy Purvis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, criticised the SNP for lowering its ambitions on class sizes, nursery provision and student debt. "Parents and students across Scotland will feel seriously let down by the perfidy of the SNP government," he said.

Earlier this year, The TESS formed a panel of teachers to scrutinise the parties' pre-election promises, two of whom were contacted again to comment on the SNP's performance.

Douglas Simpson, headteacher at Fortrose Academy in Ross-shire, has been impressed in general, but is reserving judgment on education. "Class sizes would certainly be my top priority, but I accept that would require enormous investment," he said.

"But if it's necessary for English and maths, it should be the same for other traditional, non-practical subjects."

He said that devolution had been largely responsible for a big improvement in relations between government and teaching unions, and that nothing suggested that would change with the SNP.

Sarinder Bhopal, a biology teacher and chartered teacher at Hillhead High in Glasgow, is happy that the SNP's brand of Scottish nationalism does not appear too narrow. He hopes a greater focus on issues such as Gaelic-medium teaching and Scottish history can be allied to an internationalist outlook.

He backs plans to make university places more accessible for young asylum seekers, but also wants the SNP to help poorer children by reintroducing grants.


Funding for an extra 300 teachers and 250 teacher training places.

Reduction of class sizes to 18 in P1-3.

Abolition of graduate endowment.

Increased entitlement to free nursery education.

Trial of free school meals for all P1-3 children in some deprived areas.

Asylum seeker children to gain same access to further and higher education as Scottish children, after three years in secondary.

Extra funding for Crichton Campus in Dumfries, after Glasgow University threatened to pull out because of an pound;800,000 deficit.


Write-off of student debt.

Replacement of student loans with grants.

Not-for-profit trust to provide alternatives to PFIPPP funding.

pound;10 million fund to improve services for children with conditions such as dyslexia and autism.

Guidelines on indiscipline.

Introduction of science and language baccalaureates.

Legislation to improve the children's hearing system.

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