First call at Holyrood

17th March 2000 at 00:00
DONALD DEWAR has signalled that education is to be his priority in the coming months. It is the privilege of a First Minister to choose which of the portfolios held by his appointees he wishes to take up himself. South of the border, Education Secretaries serving under Prime Ministers as far back as Lord Callaghan have had the dubious advantage of the boss taking a close interest.

There is always political calculation in the decision and Mr Dewar's promised interventions will be no different.

Since the Parliament started business, education ministers have found themselves on the back foot. There has been a rash of media events to launch initiatives and projects, notably new community schools Extra money has been made available through the Excellence Fund. But positive publicity has been lost in controversy about standards and irrelevancies like Section 28.

The First Minister wants to make education a cause, as Tony Blair has already done. Even if there is more rhetoric than substance, the associationbetween the Prime Minister and "education, education, education" is valuable politically: it will be exploited ruthlessly in the run-up to the general election. Mr Dewar knows that rough waters lie ahead. The report of the McCrone inquiry next term will focus attention on teachers' pay and conditions and the Executive's role in helping to "modernise" the profession. Ministers will be more exposed than they were after the failed Millennium Review, which largely involved employers and unions.

If difficulties loom, they should not be allowed to obscure positive developments, and it is on these that Mr Dewar is bound to concentrate. Not himself a technonerd, he will latch on to the role of information technology in classroom learning. With more political significance, teacher training and the breakdown of subject barriers look like also being on the agenda. The looming shortage of teachers should be tackled by the First Minister before it becomes another reason for defensiveness in the face of bad news.

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