Gillespie bails out the politicians

19th May 2000 at 01:00
THE role that the Scottish Parliament allows a single individual to play in influencing Government policy was dramatically illustrated this week as all parties united to pay tribute to Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

It was Mrs Gillespie who initially suggested that parent fears over what was to replace the Section 2A legislation, which forbids the promotion of homosexuality in schools, could be laid to rest if the education Bill imposed a legal requirement on education authorities to "have regard to" national guidance on sex education.

The Parliament's education committee made broadly the same recommendation in its response to the Ethical Standards in Public Life Bill, which is the vehicle for repealing Section 2A. It was then adopted by the SNP.

In extremis, the Scottish Executive followed suit in a sudden policy shift which reflected ministers' increasing exasperation that the controversy around the issue shows no signs of dying down.

At Monday's final committee stage of the Bill, all parties sought credit for the move but all also publicly recognised Mrs Gillespie's contribution. Even the Tories and the Scottish School Board Association, both prominently associated with the "keep the clause" campaign, it had always their policy.

Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, went so far as to say the compromise was "music to my ears".

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's spokesperson, believed the amendment was "sensible and workable". But she criticised the Executive's attempt to draw a distinction between "guidance", which is to be statutory, and "guidelines", which cover detailed curriculum content and are non-statutory.

The move has enabled ministers to claim they are not heading in the direction of a statutory curriculum. But Ms Sturgeon said if schools were allowed ignore "guidance" they would not be fulfilling their obligations under the legislation and the "guidelines" were in effect statutory.

Peter Peacock, Deputy Children and Education Minister, who has been guiding the Bill through its committee stages, reiterated the ministerial line that the latest effort to reassurance parents showed the Executive was listening and had been forced to act because of the unjustified fears that had been stirred by the "keep the clause" campaigners.

The new guidance will put authorities under a legal obligation to ensure that schools consult parents on sex education, which is already common practice, and to have procedures for parents to make any concerns known. But Mr Peacock repeated assurances that repeal of Section 2A would not come into force until the working group set up up to review the content of existing sex education guidelines had finished its work.

In addition, he pointed out, consultations were still taking place on the draft circular for directors of education on the ethical standards Bill which proposes that education authorities will have to ensure sex education lessons give primacy to "stable family life".

Despite rumlings from Labour backbenchers, two prominent MSPs supported the Executive at Monday's education committee meeting. Karen Gillon, the party's vice-chair, representing a Lanarkshire seat where opposition to repeal among Labour voters was strongest, said she believed further reasssurance was necessary.

Malcolm Chisholm, the former Scottish Office minister who was representing the Parliament's equal opportunities committee, said there would neither be legal guidelines nor a statutory curriculum. "It is important to emphasise the point that no principle has been conceded here in getting rid of a discriminatory piece of legislation, no principle will be conceded and that is the end of the matter."

But notice has been given that the diehards will not easily give up. Mr Monteith said later that "if further amendments are required to allay the concerns of parents and teachers, we will not hesitate to bring them forward".

John Oates, field officer with the Catholic Education Commission, said the latest move was "a welcome change" but reserved judgment until the guidance was published. He was still concerned that there was no reference to the importance of marriage.

In other committee moves, Mr Peacock announced that councils are to be given more flexibility to deal with placing requests. Discussions are to be held with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities after which guidance will be issued to cover a range of issues, including the way in which school capacity is assessed.

Ms Sturgeon told him that "the rhetoric of parental choice" often led to unrealistic expectations about securing a place, which then involved appeals to sheriff courts.

The Executive is also to review legislation to ensure that the rights of pupils who are excluded from school are in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Draft regulations will be issued for consultation. But Mr Peacock said a careful balance would have to be drawn between the rights of children aged under 16 and the rights of parents.


The Executive has so far given 10 commitments on the Bill:

Rewording Section 5 to make more explicit the involvement of parents in children's education.

A new inspection code for schools.

An obligation on authorities to publicise school board vacancies.

Annual reports from authorities on how they meet demand for Gaelic-medium education.

Clarification on whether parents can report incompetent teachers directly to the General Teaching Council without undermining the role of education authority managements.

A working group to draw up plans that ensure under-fives receive two full years of pre-school education.

New guidance and regulations on children's rights in relation to exclusion from school.

More guidance to authorities on assessing school capacity for placing requests.

Statutory guidance on

sex education.

A new duty on authorities to make annual returns on progress in improving equal opportunities.

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