New Labour, new climate for change

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Teachers have the Government most of them voted for. Even those who plumped for the Scottish National Party or the Liberal Democrats wanted to kick out the Tories, and together the three opposition parties comprehensivel y managed that. A sea change has taken place and there is a sense of expectation. But it is not accompanied by wild hopes.

The education community is more confident of a change in social climate than of rapid improvements in classroom or staffroom conditions. The hope is that teachers will no longer have constantly to defend themselves against hurtful and irrelevant accusations that they are uninterested in anything except their own conditions of service and that only outside interference, for example through national tests, keeps them up to the mark. From now on, the debates should assume good intentions on either side.

In the 1970s, relations between a Labour government and the teachers were poor. Long-standing political friends like Willie Ross as Secretary of State and John Pollock as general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland fell out badly. But today we have not only new Labour but new EIS. Whatever the extent to which Conservative industrial relations legislation is relaxed, the climate of confrontation is gone. The EIS is happier working at local level, isolating and containing disputes rather than fanning the flames. Already in further education, the strategy is for individual colleges to resolve their own difficulties.

The unions and local authorities will argue vigorously for more investment in education. They are poised to contrast Tony Blair's election rhetoric about "education, education, education" with reluctance to tackle the resourcing problems that Labour leaders were happy to exploit in opposition. But the new Chancellor of the Exchequer was so successful in dampening down expectations that no one is looking for immediate largesse. Time is on Labour's side. The first trial of strength will come with next year's local government settlement.

The new Scottish Office team looks more impressive than its predecessors. The priority will be a smooth passage for devolution. There will not be much parliamentary time for other Scottish legislation, but that will not greatly concern the education community.

Abolition of nursery vouchers and the phasing out of assisted places will be UK initiatives. As minister of state for education and industry, Brian Wilson will not be expected to innovate. His experience as an MP has not been in education. So he will want time to digest the agenda prepared by Helen Liddell, who held the brief in opposition and was an enthusiastic developer of policies. Before embarking on Labour's own programme, he must look to the unfinished business from the last government. A key immediate decision will be on the future timing and resourcing of Higher Still.

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