Dear Jack, Well, I guess it's a bit of a surprise all round to find me writing a second end-of-year report on education. The Department keeps muttering "longest-serving Education Minister since Forsyth". I don't know about that, but it says something about the fast turn-around of my predecessors that 19 months in post seems worthy of a long-service medal. Whatever, it's given me a chance to finish off some outstanding business and embark on our Ambitious Excellent Schools programme - or is that Excellent Ambitious Schools?
TEACHERS' PAY AND CONDITIONS
Jack, we are still working our way through that pay deal you negotiated.
However, we do finally seem to have reached an end to the process whereby each year's new condition of service is greeted with howls of protest and predictions of crisis - remember the probationers' year (crisis 2002) and the job- sizing exercise (crisis 2003). Of course, the anticipated disasters never happened and everything always settled down within months.
This year's change - a cut in primary teachers' class-contact time - prompted no dire warnings of impending doom. Why am I not surprised? Indeed, the only problem has been what to do with the children for the 90 minutes when the teachers are off classroom duty.
It wasn't particularly helpful for the Educational Institute of Scotland to suggest that they should just be sent home for Friday afternoons, and I'm not sure that many parents would be happy if they knew that, in some cases, their precious offspring are getting extended school assemblies. I tried to give a steer by saying that all primary pupils should have two hours of PE every week, but only a few authorities have picked that up as a solution.
Last year, you may remember, I was a little anxious (something of an understatement) about having to negotiate another pay deal with the teachers while still working through the conditions side of McCrone. Well, the deal is done and dusted. Teachers have settled for 10.43 per cent over four years. (Next time you want to negotiate pay, come and talk to a Master).
Actually, my secret weapon was Ewan Aitken, the chair of the Cosla team. As a man of the church, he is by training conditioned to spread peace and goodwill, not to mention find agreement in the most unpromising of circumstances.
I guess I can't ignore it, but pupil discipline still seems to be a major problem. It's made worse by the fact that no one can decide exactly what the problem is. The tabloids and the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers go for "violence against teachers", while research, HMI and the more reasonable EIS highlight low-level insolence ("low-level" indeed - they should be so lucky; try being a politician).
Everyone insists the majority of pupils are well-behaved (you could have fooled me) and yet everyone agrees that the problem, whatever it is, has worsened. I've done my best: I've stopped collecting the statistics as obviously everyone is using different definitions. I've appointed a "discipline tsar", I've commissioned research, I've funded schemes on restorative justice and staged intervention, and I've set up a pupil inclusion network for disaffected pupils. But still the problem rumbles on.
I think we must look at this in the context of declining standards in society and our anti-social behaviour legislation. In short, I blame the parents, although I see parents blame the teachers. How's that for going round in circles? I'm a politician, get me out of here.
Talking of parents, I find myself in great sympathy with teachers over difficult parents. I listened most carefully to the arguments for improving the opportunities for parents to get involved that were put to me at inordinate length by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. Then, when I announce a policy to take their ideas forward, I find myself accused of being patronising; patronising, moi? I was pretty miffed, I can tell you, and very grateful for the more reasoned support of the Scottish School Board Association.
However, just to add insult to injury, the SPTC managed to argue that the "patronising" comment was somehow my fault. I'm still trying to work that one out; I thought it was parents who were always to blame when things went wrong.
Nothing daunted, I'm cracking ahead with my parent-friendly plans and intend to launch a consultation on proposals to modernise school boards, and allow schools and authorities to design their own parent committees.
What's the betting that the majority still opt for exactly what they have now?
As you so rightly say, the New Parliament building is truly inspiring. The chamber is a wonderful place for debate and I will ignore the comment from the BBC's Ken MacDonald that the MSPs' desks make us look like a big band ready to spring into action.
I've also found I rather enjoy appearing before the education committee, and have a great formula for this. I turn up with my retinue of officials, but somehow never quite leave any time for them to say very much. I have perfected the technique of speaking at length, thus reducing the time for questions, sounding incredibly reasonable and sympathetic to the questioner's point of view but committing myself to nothing.
My performance on school closures was an absolute classic. Even Rhona Brankin, who has campaigned long and hard against school closure in Midlothian, gave me a smile at the end of it. Of course, on reflection, I realised the sense of leaving school closure in local authority hands.
After all, what's the point of having them if we don't leave them to make the unpopular decisions?
PRIVATE PUBLIC PARTNERSHIPS
Indeed, it's just as well local authorities are in charge of school building as well as school closure. The whole PPP building programme continues to be problematic. There's constant criticism from the EIS. One of its surveys says the new schools are environmentally unfriendly but teachers like to teach in them. I'm not sure what that says about our teachers.
Then Jarvis's business problems left Fife in a bit of a mess. However, on the plus side, Balfour Beatty rescued the failed East Lothian project, thus justifying totally "the consortium takes the risk" philosophy. Meanwhile councils continue to sign up for the pound;2.2 billion we're putting into the scheme - well they would, wouldn't they? Moreover, I was quite happy not to be in the front line of fire when the Catholic Church claimed that North Lanarkshire's plans for new PPP joint campus schemes somehow threatened the provision of Catholic education. I was more than happy to leave that one in Michael O'Neill's capable hands.
We have a result. Our long running revamp of 5 - 14 assessment is done and dusted. The consultation responses showed support for our proposals to separate the assessment of pupils from that of schools, have teachers work with computer-generated tests and operate a Scotland-wide survey to establish school performance. It helped that we involved what seemed like half the country in the pilot and worked under the snappy title "Assessment is for Learning". I mean, who could disagree with that idea?
Of course, now it is all through, I see that Stirling says it won't trust the survey findings and will continue to collect the 5-14 test results.
There always has to be one, doesn't there?
Well, we've done it; we've published school exam results on each school's record rather than present them in a tabular form that can easily be turned into league tables. It will be interesting to see if journalists are such sad people that they still compile league tables. (They are).
As promised, the group reviewing the curriculum delivered a very high-flying document that everyone can interpret exactly how they want. It was a stroke of absolute genius (and I won't be too precise as to whose genius) to include the values from the Parliament's mace. Perhaps we should "badge" all legislation this way. It certainly helps deflect any criticism.
The review was general enough to allow me to claim that it addressed the problem areas and offered solutions. I refer, of course, to the overcrowded primary curriculum, the ongoing problem of zero achievement in S1 and S2 and the lack of vocational courses to interest non-academic youngsters.
The review also added the concepts of motivation and enthusiasm to our old friend "flexibility". Immediately it was launched, the department had me out and about explaining it and insisting I stuck to the same script for every presentation - a wise precaution because they know my tendency to digress, and it is important to give the same message to everyone. The feedback was very positive and it was all going very well until I found myself delivering the curriculum script to my assembled guests at a family dinner party.
I'm delighted to say that the Additional Support for Learning Bill went through fairly unscathed, although with continuing confusion about the true nature of a co-ordinated support programme.
Despite our frequent statements to the contrary, people insist on seeing it as a record of needs, mark two. We've put the legislation on hold while we sort out the regulations. We are consulting everyone - and I mean everyone - so hopefully by the time we've finished we'll have spread a little light and understanding about what it all means. Well, I can always hope.
The legislation to give me powers to intervene following a bad HMI inspection also got through - I think because we bored the opposition into silence.
There was a splendid moment in the education committee when officials carefully explained that, while I already had powers to intervene in schools under the 1980 Act, that was only for breaches of statutory duty.
However, as failing to follow up an HMI inspection was not a breach of statutory duty, the legislation was necessary in order to make it a breach of duty and thus enable us to invoke the 1980 Act.
Now who could argue with that; indeed who would even want to? Anyway Graham Donaldson then played a masterstroke. Just as the legislation was passed, his folk released the worst HMI report I have ever seen - nothing but "fairs" and "unsatisfactories". I immediately quoted the legislation and wrote to the authority in the strongest of terms. We'll gloss over the fact that they had already taken action and replaced the headteacher.
As predicted, class size has proved problematic: to cut teacher contact time and class size all at the same time has left us with quite a headache in terms of finding the teachers. It's not a lack of intent or even of money; it is quite simply a lack of people. The opposition have had a field day.
Strangely, I have been easily convinced by the arguments for allowing schools to go over the 20 limit in S1 and S2 maths and English classes on the grounds of flexibility. I have been even more drawn to the proposals by the directors of education for a class maximum of 26 across all non-practical subjects, particularly when they back it up with the argument that, once absences are taken into account, this would mean, in practice, a class maximum of 21. Don't you just love number-crunchers sometimes?
I really enjoyed my fact-finding trip to the Antipodes. Who'd have expected a Minister of Education to get the benefits of foreign travel? Mark you, my fact-finding took on an unexpected dimension when I found myself acting as care assistant to Neil Munro, tess editor, who had come out ostensibly to report on my trip. He was confined to a wheelchair and earned many merry jibes about legless journalists but, as chief chair-pusher, I had first hand insight into the problems of the disabled.
Overall, I enjoyed the visit so much, I've decided to expand the dimension of international comparisons and have now identified New Zealand, Australia, Finland and Germany as good countries to take a closer look at.
It helps that we came out so well in the international Pizza study - at least I think that's what my officials told me.
The FE sector has really got its act together. All that money we've been pouring in has finally paid off. Most colleges are out of the red; the HMI reports are pretty encouraging and colleges are doing good work with the 14 to 16- year-old group, asylum seekers and adult returners. There's even been a merger between two Glasgow colleges and we have agreement on our proposals to merge the HE and FE funding councils. The only downside seems to be an unfortunate tendency to feature rather often at industrial tribunals but, overall, it's a good story.
We've been pouring money into enterprise education for you, Jack. If you don't create a Smart Successful Scotland, it won't be for lack of effort on our part. Of course, as with most things, confusion reigns about what exactly "enterprise" is. There are those who advocate a "can-do" approach, a highly vague concept that's hard to explain. Then there are the critics who persist in calling it "playing at shops". I prefer the nebulous approach. I think it should "permeate" (don't you just love that word?) the curriculum.
The HMI have the right idea. They say it will become so integral to the curriculum that it will be invisible, and yet they have developed performance indicators that they will use to inspect for it. It's not for me to worry about how you can inspect for something invisible and, as Tom Hunter is putting up a large chunk of the money, I'm not even worried about funding something invisible.
Now there's an idea to conjure with. If we want good schools, we need good leaders. This is another Tom Hunter special and I agree with him. After all, heidies act as a wonderful counter-balance to local education authorities and, if they get things seriously wrong, we can sack them a great deal more easily than we can get rid of councillors.
In preparation for their new responsibilities, we're sending loads of people off to Skye to work at the Columba 1400 leadership academy. This has the welcome side effect of maximising receipts from the bridge toll before we scrub the charges.
Jack, I began this piece by saying that I was being compared with Forsyth for the longevity of my tenure. More significantly, I think, is that I have finally brought the Forsyth legacy to an end.
I have separated the assessment of schools from that of pupils, I've stopped publishing examination results in a format that can easily be turned into league tables and I plan to reform school boards so that they become the parent- friendly bodies they always should have been.
If, as the Gaels say, is ann an ceann bliadhna a dh'innseas iasgair a thuiteamus, then this year the fisherman is well content!
Yours aye Peter TES NEWS Review 6-7
HEALTH AND SEX EDUCATION
I see we're still up there with our mens sana in corpore sano policy. I seem to spend at least as much time talking about physical fitness and good eating habits as I do about what's in the curriculum. Maybe we should reverse the normal process and have schools provide the meals and activities and leave parents to do the education.
Just to complicate matters, sex education has - how can I put it? Reared its head? Come up again? Ah yes, returned to the agenda. You have to wonder about the effectiveness of education in the past when people seem seriously to believe scare stories about graphic sex education in nursery schools.