'If we don't get things right, it could come back to haunt us'

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Neil Munro meets the new convener of Holyrood's education committee

BOB BROWN may be a new kid on the block as far as education is concerned.

But the 55-year-old Liberal Democrat MSP is an experienced hand, at least in his own party.

In particular, he has been convener of its policy group for the past four years which gave him a key influence over the election manifesto. So schools will have him to thank as much as anyone for the coalition's promise of an extra 3,000 teachers and the reinforced commitment to scrap national tests.

Mr Brown appears to be every inch the epitome of the Scottish solicitor - which is exactly what he is (he retains a consultancy with Ross Harper).

Measured and cautious, one of his mantras is "it's all a matter of balance".

He has been spending the summer reading himself into his new remit, although his learning curve may not be that steep: his wife is a primary teacher and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Indeed the education committee now has a veritable excess of educational talent. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, deputy convener, is a former Tory education minister; Wendy Alexander, former Lifelong Learning Minister, is a visiting professor at Strathclyde University; Elaine Murray, a former education convener in South Ayrshire, is a member of the Association of University Teachers; Rhona Brankin, a former arts minister, was a special needs lecturer; and Adam Ingram of the SNP is married to a member of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.

As for Mr Brown, he is set for a hectic agenda as his committee handles the major Additional Support for Learning Bill, a Gaelic language Bill and the measure to give ministers more powers over "failing schools". These are in addition to items the committee itself wants to scrutinise, although he promises to keep an eye on its workload.

Other pieces of legislation, in which the committee has a secondary interest, will also come before it. This may include one of the Bills which is a cause of some tension between Labour and his own party, that on anti-social behaviour. Mr Brown acknowledges that this is still an issue between them but, as he says typically, "it's a matter of getting the balance right".

He may be a Christmas Day baby but the Executive cannot expect a constant supply of the festive spirit. "There will no doubt be differences between the Parliament and the Executive but I hope I can modestly claim to have sufficient rigour and independence of mind to tackle these robustly. It is the job of the committee to be vigorously scrupulous in relation to legislation - if we don't get things right, it could come back to haunt us."

Mr Brown does not have any particular shopping list of personal priorities, beyond the general "young people's agenda" (a throwback to his Scouting days, he muses). But issues such as the relevance of the curriculum are central to that agenda, including Liberal Democrat preoccupations such as a better deal for young people turned off by the curriculum.

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