Michael Russell: tough talk, smooth operator

28th November 2014 at 00:00

"I'll be back," grinned Michael Russell cryptically as he addressed Scotland's education directors last week. Some 24 hours later, the country's longest-serving education secretary was gone, his job bequeathed to Cabinet colleague Angela Constance (see pages 7-8).

That left one question on everyone's lips: had Russell really meant to invoke The Terminator in one of his last acts?

It's tempting to extend the metaphor, with Russell as a leather-clad killer cyborg intent on fulfilling a totalitarian mission. In truth, that would be a better fit for the unwavering ideology of his one-time Westminster equivalent, Michael Gove.

Russell could be abrasive and high-handed, and he was an intimidating presence when crossed in Parliament, but his measured, urbane menace was more Shere Khan than Schwarzenegger.

And there was little of the rejoicing that greeted Gove's exit from education. Some reaction on Twitter bordered on the affectionate, although the mood in further education was often bitter (see page 14). Some insisted that Russell was "hated" in FE after the turmoil of regionalisation but others hailed him as the first education minister with a coherent approach to the sector. Some senior education figures even told us - although it was not a universal view - that Russell had been a good listener. He certainly talked a lot to key players and took on board a number of their ideas.

Russell pointed to the international plaudits he received after, unusually, sharing a platform with Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, at a major conference in New Zealand earlier this year. But some observers back in Scotland thought him too eager to meet union demands.

He took a hard line on protecting rural schools - a big issue in his Argyll and Bute constituency - and insisted on maintaining teacher numbers (although there were dark mutterings from the EIS recently that local authorities body Cosla had made a persuasive case for removing the profession's special protection).

Russell appeared open to new ideas and nimbly negotiated social media such as Twitter. But with the Scottish government having all but done away with ring-fenced budgets, the results could be jarring. He talked up innovation even as the onus was on local authorities to make the difficult choices.

Russell was a firm hand, however, and stuck resolutely with Curriculum for Excellence, initially a Labour-Liberal Democrat project. He embraced his brief, talked up education at every turn and confronted big issues, overseeing reports on teacher education, school management and young workers.

For journalists, he gave good copy: revelling in his opinions, fond of withering put-downs and confident enough to avoid desultory sound bites.

Constance has an unenviable task now, as the cuts start to bite. But at least Scottish education's protagonists and the government are communicating. In these fraught times, that may prove to be her predecessor's most important legacy.


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