Just call me Helen says passionate minister

26th February 1999 at 00:00
THE Education Minister's caravan, extolling her White Paper, reached Ayr last week. It rolled into Stirling this week and finally comes to a halt in Dumfries next week. As at previous forays into Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, Helen Liddell exuded confidence and passion - the latter emerging as one of her favourite p words. Lifelong learning and the underperformance of boys, it seems, are among her passions.

Although the audiences of teachers, parents and officials are hand-picked - by the local authorities, not the Government - Mrs Liddell did not escape pointed questions.

Perhaps the bluntest came from Agnes Davies, a retired primary head and Labour Party veteran who prefaced her remarks with "Minister", at the which the Minister smiled and said: "I'll give you a row if you call me that again; I've known you for 30 years."

Mrs Davies, nonplussed at such a blatant term of endearment, then pleaded with "Helen - I've got it right this time" to praise teachers a little bit more in order to counteract "the anti-teacher bias in the media".

Mrs Liddell said she had "no hesitation in praising teachers. After all, I wouldn't be here today if teachers hadn't shown commitment to me."

But, she added inimitably: "I will not shy away from the fact that there are teachers who for whatever reason - perhaps a wrong career move, we've all done it - are not performing to the standards expected of them." Poor teaching must be "soul-destroying" if it undermined the good work done by others. "The reason I am saying that is not because I am anti-teacher," she said. "It's because I am pro-teacher." The proof was the extra millions the Government is prepared to throw into the local authority coffers to pay teachers more.

There remained plenty of dry eyes in the house, but there were certainly no "Stalin's granny" gibes of media demonisation. Sandy Fowler, secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland in South Ayrshire, was not convinced. "If it is our joint objective to raise standards, is it sensible constantly to criticise an already demoralised profession?" "I don't constantly criticise teachers," Mrs Liddell retorted, "but the press is anti-teacher and that has to be borne in mind." For good measure, she referred to the recent Standards and Quality report by HMI which pronounced that 80 per cent of primary schools and 85 per cent of secondaries were well managed. This was reported as 20 per cent of primaries and 15 per cent of secondaries which were poorly led. Just to make sure everyone was on message, she said: "I want a profession which is well motivated, well paid and has access to continuous professional development which is very, very important."

An opportunity to pour forth further sweetness and light came with a question from a rarity at such gatherings - a pupil. Neil Rutherford of Kyle Academy in Ayr said the minister had talked a lot about excellence and school performance. He had been given many opportunities, through activities such as music and debating, which had made an important contribution to his education - "and that should be recognised".

If this was a veiled attack on target-setting and the preoccupation with exam results, Mrs Liddell saw it as a chink to praise schools that established a good ethos and to commend the virtues of Higher Still for its emphasis on "pupils' skills not lack of skills".

The final sermon from the ministerial mount, still apparently addressing Mr Rutherford's point, was that "we need to send good citizens out into the world, although they must be well-educated and well-motivated citizens".

That was a classic Liddell tour de force: make the points you want to make with only an occasional nod towards the question. But it was quite a performance none the less, spoken entirely without reference to notes or officials. The audience was impressed.

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