Holyrood watchers hail a rite of passage

28th July 2000 at 01:00
IT is unlikely the punters will be dancing in the streets of Raith, Arbroath or Elgin but at least interest groups have welcomed the Parliament's first education legislation as Her Majesty performed her formal signing function.

They may harbour individual doubts about the content of Sam Galbraith's Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act, yet the emerging democratic process has been more significant.

Ian McKay, assistant secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland attended most sessions of the Bill and sums up the observers' view. "At the end of the first year of life, Parliament saw education as the major Bill and that has to be good news for education generally.

"We clearly learnt a lot from being much closer to the democratic process and we hope also that MSPs and political parties have learnt a lot. It was obvious that the way the committee structure acts as a second chamber is still going through a learning process."

Mr McKay accepts that further legislation will be forthcoming to tidy up aspects already flagged up during the first Bill. "One of the benefits of having a legislature on your doorstep is that you can do these things whenever.

At Westminister, you would have waited five or six years until you got another slot."

Judith Gillespie, development manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, was another regular monitor and supports the minister's view that the Act was "shaped by an extensive, genuinely interactive consultation process".

Mrs Gillespie commented: "This is the only time we have been able to make progress on a Bill. It was the ability to intervene that was the most striking feature, far more significant than any aspect of it. This is an unrecognised achievement."

She added: "This was the antithesis of Michael Forsyth's opting-out Bill in the late 1980s which rejected all the views of everyone in Scotland. The change of approach in this latest Bill (which finally consigned opting out to history) marked a significant contrast with previous Westminster legislation."

Brian Monteith, the Tories' education frontbencher, claimed th Act would go "largely unnoticed by parents and children".

But Keir Bloomer, president of the Association of Directors of Education, echoed the supportive refrain. "The process of consultation was much better than anything we have experienced in the past. In fact, we have had nothing remotely like it. There was fairly open consultation at the outset, proper feedback and openness of committee procedures. A lot of that speaks well of the democractic structure of the Scottish Parliament."

On specifics, Mr Bloomer added: "We view the improvement framework as very positive. It's a good thing all major partners are committed in law to continuous improvement. The mechanisms set up have the potential to simplify the whole process of auditing, accountability and planning which have frankly become overloaded."

Ivor Sutherland, registrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, whose role was at the centre of much of the Bill, describes the legislation as "a curate's egg". Ministers did amend plans for the GTC but still drove home some less palatable features.

Pluses were the role for the GTC in continuing professional development and teacher competence, and the additional disciplinary functions. It can, for example, now strike off teachers on ill-health grounds. Further clarification of the council's extended role in these matters will depend on continuing consultation and a future Bill.

Dr Sutherland added, however: "We do not like the notion of the council disbanding next year (to be replaced by a newly elected body). We fought that tooth and nail. And we are not keen on the power of ministers to determine committee membership and we have reservations about the reduction in the teacher majority. That really is interference in the affairs of a self regulating body paid for by teachers."

Mr McKay, whose union is never far removed from the GTC, recognises the benefits in further open talks . "There were aspects of the GTC that needed thinking through. It's better we will have hands-off discussion prior to legislation. Whatever the outcome, the process is preferable."

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