My pride, their prejudice

21st August 1998 at 01:00
The row over university tuition fees seemed to overshadow everything else in your ministerial year. In retrospect, would you have handled any aspect of it differently - including the "discrimination" against other UK students?

It overshadowed everything else only in the sense that it attracted most headlines. We should have done more, earlier, to emphasise that tuition fees would not touch people from lower income backgrounds and that virtually everyone would be repaying less in loans, on a monthly basis, than under the present system. There is absolutely nothing in this package to deter students from less well-off backgrounds, and I underestimated the cynicism of those who continue blithely to assert that there is.

The decision about whether to fund the fourth year for non-Scottish students was not for me to take. The Department for Education and Employment, the Welsh Office and the Northern Ireland Office looked at their priorities and decided, for their own reasons quite logically, against it. If I had announced that the Scottish Office would pay what these students' own funding departments were refusing to pay, there would have been justified hostility.

Having said that, the whole thing got completely out of proportion because a few university principals lobbied very assiduously. I don't think it has done them any good.

I just wish that a fraction of the coverage had been given to my decision to abolish tuition fees for part-time students in higher education. That will still be benefiting thousands of people who might not otherwise have had a chance, years after the so-called Scottish anomaly - which is in fact the product of there being two different education systems - has been forgotten.

There was a clear lack of confidence in assurances from the Government over Higher Still, prompting union ballots which are threatening a boycott.Why was this allowed to happen?

The general message I kept receiving was of general support for Higher Still which had by then been in preparation for several years. However, I do accept that this is an area in which I should have been more sceptical about the reassurances which were brought to me about the progress towards implementation.

Before moving, I had taken some steps towards addressing these concerns and the substantial additional funding which has been committed to Higher Still implementation will make a real difference.

The Inspectorate has been a key player in three Government programmes which have run into trouble - 5-14, target-setting and Higher Still. Has your experience or have your school tours revealed any deep-seated antipathy to HMI or suggested any need for an overhaul?

No, I found a lot of respect for the Inspectorate. There is widespread support for the educational validity of both 5-14 and Higher Still, but there cannot be change on that scale without detailed concerns about implementation and balance within the curriculum.

As far as target-setting is concerned, the Inspectorate gave us a starting point but my reason for establishing the action group on standards was to ensure that the approach commanded the widest possible support. The methodology has changed substantially as a result of the views expressed through that group.

You were portrayed in the daily Scottish press as pursuing a teacher-friendly agenda which was at odds with weaknesses in the system - in maths, science and modern languages - and with a more hardline approach in England. Was this your deliberate policy or their deliberate misrepresentation?

I believe, and still believe, that most of the problems which exist in Scottish education could be better addressed through a consensual approach linked to a substantial increase in front-line resources, which we now have.

Some people have conveniently short memories. I took over the job after a long period of wholly justified concern about political meddling and ideological experimentation, while at the same time resources were being slashed. I tried to do what was appropriate and potentially most productive in the distinctive Scottish context.

Inevitably, some of the same people who had formerly complained about the Englishing of Scottish education immediately started moaning that I wasn't Englishing it enough. I think it's called political opportunism.

After a year's exposure, how do you assess press treatment of educational issues?

Outside this newspaper, there is little serious educational coverage in the Scottish press. The tone was set by a couple of nominal education correspondents whose only interest was in twisting every story into some sort of minor sensation. The dishonesty of their coverage offended me more as a journalist than as a politician.

I also had the misfortune to be in the firing line when the Scotsman was going through a period of dementia from which, in its own interests, I hope it is now recovering. The refreshing thing was that I came in contact with almost nobody in the education world who took the negativity of these newspapers seriously.

What do you regard as your unsung achievements?

I don't expect any monuments after 15 months in the job, but there are some things I am proud to have done. I sincerely hope and believe that my decision, after seeing the Edinburgh pilots, to place so much emphasis on early intervention will transform the life prospects for many children.

The reviews of special needs provision will also bear long-term fruit - particularly the Beattie committee on post-school special needs, which didn't get a line in any newspaper but which deals with an area of heartbreak and under-provision which I was absolutely determined to address.

I became a great admirer of further education and, when the comprehensive spending review came round, I set out to ensure that there were no half-measures in addressing the funding needs of colleges and I think everyone agrees this was achieved. It also gave me great satisfaction to restore funding to Newbattle Abbey College.

Do you think any changes need to be made in Government education policy and, if so, are they matters of strategy or detail? There are, for example,criticisms that - spending decisions apart - it is difficult to shine a light between Labour and its predecessors on national testing, teacher appraisal, the obsession with targets, the encouragement of inappropriate competition between schools and a general lack of trust in teachers.

I don't recognise that description at all. Nobody questions the need for targets or for a drive to raise standards. The huge difference, compared to 18 months ago, is the climate in which these ends are being pursued.

After the reshuffle, just about every letter I received from people involved in Scotland's schools referred to the way in which the atmosphere has been transformed through an emphasis on co-operation. I leave the job with an enormous amount of respect for the professional skill and dedication of the vast majority of those who are in the front line.


Brian Wilson's departure from the Scottish education brief was widely predicted, but his move to the Department of Trade and Industry as Trade Minister was less widely predicted.

His diary has already started to take on a new look. A trade mission took him recently to Vietnam, which is rather different from Vatersay.

Helen Liddell, his successor, who has moved to the Scottish Office from the Treasury, will be keenly watched for signs of policy shifts in a brief she shadowed while in opposition.

One of Mr Wilson's last acts was to take part in announcing the results of the Treasury's comprehensive spending review, which the Government claims will give Scottish education an extra Pounds 1.3 billion between 1999 and 2002.

But political opponents and economic experts say creative accounting, inflation and pay restraint make this sum much less generous than it appears.

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