From feast to famine and back again

20th July 2007 at 01:00
I didn't vote for it in 1997 and I didn't vote for them in 2007. But I confess that the existence of a Scottish Parliament and an incumbent SNP administration has removed my cynicism for now.

My family would tell you that my admiration is due to flattery and bribery. The flattery comprised an invitation from our new First Minister to join a gathering of Scotland's business leaders "to discuss how we can work together to focus government and business on creating a more successful country". Some might say, "Don't hold your breath." My wife snorted at the idea of me as a "business leader", but I kept silent.

The bribery on offer was a free business breakfast with the First Minister and his Cabinet secretaries at a grand Edinburgh hotel, so I accepted with alacrity.

I was impressed. There were enough hints from John Swinney about reductions in expensive agencies to make my heart sing, plus some inspirational comments from Jim Mather on countrywide enterprise. And when I heard the First Minister explore his view of consultants (he suggested they take the risk out of government by covering the government's back against taking decisions) I muttered a quiet hooray because he seemed in favour of decision-making without a multi-million-pound report that would probably support his views anyway.

All grounds for hope, then. Sadly, I didn't get to ask my question because there were a lot of business leaders there, most with more potential investment to offer than me. But I still thought it was an important question; so, I suspect, will many readers of this newspaper. It was to do with education, and I know Mr Salmond values education: it was, he said, the focus of all investment that preceded Ireland's economic recovery.

So why, I wondered, are we still offering a procurement model in education provision that lurches from famine to feast, and back to famine, and this across 32 authorities that seem keen to re-invent 32 wheels?

Don't get me wrong. Our education publishing company had a successful start to 2007, helped by an injection in January of pound;60 million from the previous Labour administration, whereby principal teachers, or faculty leaders, could buy what they wanted to use in the classroom (in sharp contrast to centrally imposed requisitions of things they didn't necessarily want). But even here there was geographical imbalance, as teachers in certain authorities bemoaned their lack of funds while others rejoiced in unaccustomed executive indulgence.

In truth, they would all have preferred a uniform and sustainable provision that would have allowed planned purchases of education resources in a professional manner. The same is true for us and all commercial providers of education resources at the mercy of government cash streams that turn on and off like power-jet washers timed to electoral cycles.

Although January to March was wonderful, April to June was woeful, and we tire of hearing teachers tell us they'd love to buy a set of this or that book, but they "just don't have the money". Some anticipate funds by August, but they remain uncertain. They will have to endure a "back to school" bidding scramble to order and receive the resources they need. Wouldn't it be nice for teachers, education and us if proper funding for buying were delivered in well-measured and predictable volumes?

So thanks for the breakfast, Mr Salmond. If your administration can deliver on the question I didn't get to ask, it will win my admiration, and maybe even my next vote. And I'm even prepared to hold my breath at least until the honeymoon's over.

John Mitchell is managing director of education publishers Hodder Gibson

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