If you've got a question, and you can't get an answer...

28th April 2000 at 01:00
Willis Pickard talks to the Executive's trouble-shooter

THE head of the education department at the Scottish Executive has not yet been exposed by MSPs to the glare of democratic publicity. But John Elvidge will not shirk the challenge. Like Douglas Osler, head of the Inspectorate, he would grab the chance to respond publicly.

The administrative side of the education department attracts less attention from teachers than the Inspectorate, though that may change after the Executive responds to the McCrone inquiry next month. Mr Elvidge accepts that devolution has thrust Scottish education into the democratic spotlight in a way never possible at Westminster. Even from his perspective, as a giver of confidential advice to ministers, "there are more advantages than disadvantages. A little more democratic accountability can't be argued to be a bad thing."

But he adds that education is not the constant stuff of cut-and-thrust debate across the floor of the chamber. It is a long-term business where measuring the results of policies and the effects of change is difficult. The argument about setting standards and making the system accountable is a case in point, although the opportunity is now present for legislators to get to grips with difficult issues.

Not that a ministerial adviser deals only in the long term. For a start, he is also an administrator. "MSPs have the choice of what issues to pick up. Officials must find solutions."

Trouble-shooting is part of his recent experience. Before being appointed to the new education department last year at the age of 48, he had spent more than a year seconded to the Cabinet Office in Whitehall as deputy head of its economic and domestic secretariat. Problems causing political difficulty in other departments and taken up by the Prime Minister landed with him. It meant instant grasp of complex controversies, an intellectual challenge even for a civil servant used to moving regularly from job to job.

He had, for example, no background in agriculture, just when food hygiene and animal welfare were topping the political agenda.

In the Cabinet Office, topics of the moment would eventually revert to subject departments. In the Executive's education department they remain Mr Elvidge's responsibility. The carve-up between his department and that of enterpris and lifelong learning has been fully implemented, he says, and there are no obvious demarcation disputes. "The main need is to ensure that since people's education carries over from one area to another, there is no loss of continuity."

Higher Still is an example. Although the programme operates in further education as well as schools and FE belongs to enterprise and lifelong learning, there have been no "handling" difficulties. Schools have had to adapt more than colleges, and their concerns are familiar to the education department. The links needed with, say, employers if the programme is to work well in FE are understood by enterprise and lifelong learning.

Mr Elvidge seems at ease with the insistence his minister, Sam Galbraith, places on measuring standards as the way to raise achievement. Asked whether teachers are being required to measure too much, he responds: "Simply because we can't measure everything is no excuse for not measuring what we can. Yes, there is a risk, but don't ignore what is measurable."

Most people, he adds, would agree that the results are valuable and "we should have a debate about what else is possible". Mr Galbraith had asked schools to measure themselves against others of a similar nature, and the same applied to pupils. People flocked to Scotland from all over the world because of what we have achieved in measuring attainment and seeking to validate quality. "We may not have all the answers but we have asked the right questions."

Returning to Scotland last year, Mr Elvidge read himself into his new job partly by looking at recent research reports. Like Mr Galbraith he found himself asking, what is the strength of the evidence? He concluded: "As a basis for decisions, some research is not as disciplined as we would like."

Wouldn't the research community challenge that? If they do, "we will have a wholly beneficial debate".

Some observers already profess to see in John Elvidge a passion for education not obvious in all previous administrators. If so, it has yet to make itself public. But he certainly does not want to shelter from debate. Senior officials have always explored territory beyond ministerial policies with the experts in a field, he says. Engaging with the Parliament will not be so great a change. "We are used to being held to account."

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