The first four years

28th March 2003 at 00:00
THE last week of the first Scottish Parliament is a fitting time to take stock. Along with others, we cannot conclude that policy-making has been an unqualified success. There has been a stubbornly held attachment to targets and performance measures in bouts of initiative-itis which has left much of the education world feeling bemused rather than feeling the benefits.

We have also witnessed the downside to joined-up government. The education department presides over schools but the culture ministry doles out cash for school sport, the arts and Gaelic, the lifelong learning mandarins are responsible for enterprise education and educational maintenance allowances, health ministers demand action on school meals, the social justice team are the custodians of many aspects of the social inclusion agenda including the education of asylum-seekers' children and the justice regime brings us a host of ideas on youth crime, children's panels, and so on. All the measures from these departments impact on schools and, despite the rhetoric, not always in a joined-up way.

Overseeing it all has been Jack McConnell, the First Minister. It is testimony to his effectiveness that the agenda shaped while he was education minister is still the agenda: he set new directions in the post-McCrone agreement, the drive to improve discipline, the change of course towards a more flexible curriculum, the dramatic expansion of privately funded school renovations, moves towards integrated services for children and the emphasis on closing the "opportunity gap".

Those scrutinising the record of Cathy Jamieson, the current Education Minister, may wonder what distinctive mark she has made. Ms Jamieson has certainly championed the cause of special needs and children in the widest sense - when she has been able to take time off from being Minister for BBC's Newsnight Scotland. The passage this week of the Bill to create a children's commissioner may well be a fitting conclusion to her tenure.

Those who believe she has been a McConnell clone cannot have it both ways: they cannot simultaneously press for schools to be left in peace and quiet to consolidate ministerial reforms and then accuse her of failing to "intervene" on the whim of the latest newspaper editorial responding to an alleged "crisis".

As our columns regularly record and do so again this week (page one), there are serious problems in many subject areas while the curriculum in general and assessment remain deeply contentious. And, of course, many of Mr McConnell's own initiatives face the odd brick wall. The fact remains, however, that his administration has run into trouble precisely because it has tackled many long-neglected problems. And there are major achievements - better school buildings, early intervention, universal schooling for three and four-year-olds, the opening up of further and higher education, and increasing amounts of (albeit ring-fenced) cash. For a "do nothing" administration supposedly obsessed with fox-hunting and dog-fouling, this is a decent legacy.

As politicians now head off into the sunset of the first Parliament to prepare for the electoral fray, they leave behind schools which will welcome the breathing space. Jack McConnell may have set the education agenda, but its fate could depend on international events outwith his control. Voters will not consider the finer points of policy in deciding whether, to coin a phrase, there should be regime change at Holyrood - which is a pity.

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