Forsyth's last push

26th July 1996 at 01:00
Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, Labour's frontbencher, has been in the Lords long enough to have nodded through several pieces of Michael Forsyth's education legislation. The latest last week (page two) heralded nursery vouchers, compulsory testing in the first two years of secondary school, limits to opting out in face of school closures and the less contentious merger of the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council.

Neil Carmichael was also present when the school boards and opting out legislation in the late 1980s were pushed through Parliament against the apparent wishes of the educational community and the Scottish public. He was therefore well placed to comment on the latest catch-all Bill. "I do not like education Bills, or any sort of Bills, to fail one after the other. But I am sure there will need to be yet another education Bill sometime in the not too distant future."

He was alluding to a Labour government and its likely attempt to unravel much of the Forsyth-inspired legislation of the past nine years. But Lord Carmichael was perhaps jumping the gun since we may not yet be finished with Conservative education legislation. A White Paper on Scottish education looms in the autumn and a quick education Bill to further force the pace of right-wing reform, as south of the border, could emerge to fill the parliamentary void and ensure education becomes a major election issue.

More compulsion may be on the agenda. Selection within secondaries, teacher appraisal and a firmer push for opting out may be part of that scenario in what will be viewed as a last-ditch attack on comprehensive education. Mr Forsyth cannot stand back from reforms south of the border and would probably not want to. The backwash from England is inevitable.

The Scottish Secretary has struggled against the odds to combat the educational community, largely without success as the 40,000-strong demonstration against cuts showed last February. However, he has noticeably changed the climate in Scottish education towards a more consumerist, responsive and less paternal approach. Schools and authorities are more open to scrutiny than ever, although published tables of examination performance may not be the most comfortable form of openness from the teacher's point of view.

Yet his structural reforms that swallowed hours of parliamentary time have dismally failed. School boards have not led to opting out. Parents have confidence in their local state schools and have absorbed the two most significant pieces of legislation on school boards and opting out. It does not bode well for this latest legislative effort.

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