Mr Enigmatic meets Mr Earnest and loses

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Neil Munro on the hectic first year of the Scottish Parliament, which took up its legislative powers a year ago tomorrow.


THE VERDICT on ministers after the first year is inevitably mixed, as they wrestled with the sharp end of policy-making. Sometimes they postponed wrestling bouts. Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, set up the McCrone committee of inquiry into the teaching profession, while Henry McLeish, the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, did well in tackling the consequences of Cubie.

Galbraith continues to be an enigma. The former neuro-surgeon clearly has a brain, but sometimes it seems engaged, while at other times it sends out a signal that he could not care less. He is certainly engaging, humorous even, but also brutally dismissive. This mercurial combination was also the hallmark of Michael Forsyth, the former Tory Education Minister and Secretary of State.

Indeed, one civil servant privately offered the intriguing comparison that Galbraith was "the best education minister since Forsyth", though that was the traditional mandarin admiration for a minister who knows his own mind.

Henry McLeish could not be a greater contrast - earnest, ambitious, breathlessly engaged. The brief suits his interests. While Galbraith has been busy dodging brickbats from the teachers, McLeish has been earning plaudits. FE colleges in particular are impressed by his understanding of their economic as well as their educational importance.

McLeish also enjoys good relations with John Swinney, his SNP shadow. Apart from tuition fees, of which McLeish was not the architect, this has helped ensure there have been no political crises to test him. On the other hand the relationship between Galbraith and Nicola Sturgeon, his SNP opposite number, is more correct than cordial. The two ministers' different experiences could, of course, be attributed to rather different jobs: Galbraith has a more direct responsibility for schools whereas McLeish's sprawling empire is largely quango ruled.

The juniors who complete the ministerial teams are an innovation: one Scottish Office minister responsible for education and, latterly industry, has now become six covering schools nd post-school. Hence the junior ministers have struggled to find a role.

The star of Peter Peacock, Galbraith's education depute, is clearly in the ascendant: he is a master of the difficult art of summing up at the end of Parliamentary debates and to him fell the big job of guiding the education Bill through committee. He has also bagged some niche policy areas such as information and communications technology and special educational needs.

Rhona Brankin, the other member of the team in charge of sport and the arts, is still seen as growing into the job. Her briefs are mostly low-profile, making it harder for her to shine.

The other post-school ministers are Nicol Stephen and Alasdair Morrison, though the latter concentrates mostly on the Highlands and Islands, Gaelic and tourism. Stephen is the only Liberal Democrat with an education remit and therefore guardian of his party's pre-election promise to abolish tuition fees.

The face-saving compromise following the Cubie report on student finance allowed him to keep his portfolio.

Together, the ministers have presided over a plethora of announcements and policy initiatives - some recycled, some not - with the help of the funds from the comprehensive spending review which they inherited and which run out in 2002. Chancellor Gordon Brown is scheduled to announce over the summer the largesse from the next Treasury review, from which Scotland and education expect a generous share. A flurry of further announcements can then be expected.

In the meantime, life must go on. Galbraith will be busy bedding down the provisions of his bill and orchestrating the post-McCrone settlement - if he is still the minister. He and his colleagues will have to find a more satisfactory relationship between schools, education authorities and Parliament - a growing issue.

McLeish will be preoccupied in the coming months with reshaping the enterprise network which will affect FE colleges and the training scene in general. That is, if he is not trying to get into pole position to succeed Donald Dewar.

Whatever difference the Parliament has made or will make in practice, educational life in Scotland will never be the same again.


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