The perennial politician

9th June 2006 at 01:00
As Peter Peacock passes the milestone of being Scotland's longest-serving education minister, Neil Munro discovers what makes him tick

It is often said of ministers that, if you want to know how good or bad they are, watch their officials' body language. On the basis of that test, Peter Peacock is competence personified. It is rare indeed that the Education Minister has to turn to his advisers for guidance or that they have to intervene to come to his rescue or that they find themselves explaining away embarrassing gaffes.

Politically, the 54-year-old Peacock is an apparent latecomer, having joined the Labour Party only in 1997. But he claims to have found his sense of social justice in the improbable setting of the Scouts, when he was aged around 13 in his home town of Hawick. He says that gave him a broad sense of political awareness rather than directing him to a specific political party.

"I don't remember any political discussion at home and I had no idea how my parents voted," he says. "When I went to Jordanhill, I was not actively involved in party politics, although I was for a time on the student representative council." None the less, it was probably a pointer to the future that the young Peacock emerged from Jordanhill with a diploma in youth work and community service.

One source of his developing political and community awareness was his history teacher at Hawick High, Jock Houston, "a great teacher who made a major impression on me". It is a point he drives home to those who fear his curricular reforms will, as one teacher put it to him, "make history a thing of the past". Not so, Peacock says: thanks to Houston, "history is one of my passions".

Other passions developed from his time spent as a community worker in Orkney and with the Citizens Advice Bureaux in the Highlands and nationally. The CAB, he says, sharpened his political antennae. "It made me acutely aware of the very fine line between apparent success and apparent failure, and how the balance could be tipped so easily, whether by a death in the family, an accident at work, the loss of a job, or whatever."

It was this period that led to Peacock's most formative experience, working in local government. His time with the CAB had involved a great deal of contact with local authorities. "We were appalled by many of them," he says candidly, "particularly their failure to inform citizens of their rights."

Perhaps a whiff of new Labour was evident even then.

In 1982, he was first elected to Highland Region, where he cut his political teeth and served as a councillor for 17 years. Peacock rose rapidly, becoming finance convener in 1986, spending 12 years chairing the budget committee and ending up as council leader. "I wouldn't have missed being a councillor for anything," he says. "It was a great learning experience" - a frequent Peacock refrain.

One of those learning experiences has driven another of his passions, the time he spent having to implement cuts in council spending and even being forced to impose the poll tax. "I still feel a deep sense of anger at what the Tories did in dismantling public services during those years," he says.

Perhaps this is why one leading Tory MSP describes him as "old Labour - to the core".

Not many in the "old Labour" ranks might so describe him, still wary of someone who only joined the party two years before he took up ministerial office. Peacock reveals, however: "I had made a vow to myself to join the Labour Party in 1982 but didn't get round to it." There was little pressure, given the resistance in rural councils such as Highland to operate on party political lines. Officially, he continued to be elected as an "independent" councillor.

He eventually progressed to the national scene, becoming vice-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. But Peacock had no expectation of ministerial office in 1999 - and neither did his new Labour colleagues. As one party MSP, who is very much a fan, put it: "Any red-blooded socialist credentials he might have don't register on anyone's radar."

But Donald Dewar, the late First Minister, impressed by Peacock's formidable intelligence, set his sights beyond the radar.

Having had two periods in education, one as depute and one as minister in charge, Peacock believes longevity has allowed him to bring clear and consistent messages to schools. "I have been aware that, in the early days, people listening to me might have felt, 'well, we've had so many education ministers, what's the point of paying attention to what he says: there will be another one along in a minute'."

He now believes he has a depth of understanding of the issues and has been able to build solid relationships with people.

Peacock's abilities are not in doubt. He has taken 17 bills through parliament, including finance measures when he was a minister in that department between his educational stints. His achievement is that he appears to have won plaudits from both the educational and political communities for his performance.

Rosemarie Andrew, head of his old school, Drumlanrig St Cuthbert's primary in Hawick, was highly impressed when he paid a visit. She says: "Under his leadership, the profession has had a time of peace, which has allowed education to move forward. My last years in education - and I have been in teaching for almost 40 years - have been exciting and positive under a minister who works hard for education, knows what he is talking about and is visible and approachable."

Critics in the classroom have a different perspective, citing discipline, mainstreaming and class sizes as unresolved issues. Peacock points to the millions poured into schools to help improve behaviour and has been at pains to acknowledge that "inclusion is challenging and it is also desirable - but not at any price".

From the political side, Alasdair Morrison, Labour MSP for the Western Isles and a former minister, who has watched Peacock closely, says he is "highly competent and, whether he is dealing with the parliament's education committee or finessing legislation through parliament, there is no operator like Peter".

He pays tribute, too, to his ability to push through political priorities against mandarin rules - like the specialist Gaelic school in Glasgow, which the minister himself notches up as a considerable achievement.

His political critics, of course, do not see it that way, berating him for his failure to adopt Tony Blair's Westminster education reforms in Scotland. Peacock remains adamant that "England has different challenges and they will find their own solutions to their problems, as we will find solutions to ours". And as one of Scotland's most widely travelled education ministers, Peacock has frequently signalled his intention to learn from elsewhere. "I don't regard England as the only reference point,"

he comments.

Peacock has had many other "highs" during his tenure, singling out the 2000 education act that set the improvement framework for schools, established mainstreaming provision and introduced the inspection of education authorities. The McCrone inquiry, the Schools of Ambition agenda and the curriculum reforms are among the other initiatives which, he believes, "give coherence to what we are doing and provide the vehicles for improvement into the future".

Peacock is not so willing to be drawn on the "lows", although, clearly, the exams debacle that happened on his watch with Sam Galbraith in 2000 is the major one. While acknowledging the disintegration as "a tough period" and paying loyal tribute to Galbraith's willingness to take the flak, he is more interested in the lessons that were learnt - a more robust exam system, better planning of major national projects like the new qualifications regime, a clearer relationship with arm's length bodies like the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the importance of building links with schools.

That was, in many ways, a classic Peacock response - reflective, measured, optimistic, enthusiastic, realistic. He gives the impression of living out his message for schools, describing for instance his experience of taking the 2000 act through parliament as "a thoroughly enjoyable experience, enormously intellectually stimulating". It is a pleasingly appropriate summary from an Education Minister of what education is supposed to be about.

It is often said of ministers that, if you want to know how good or bad they are, watch their officials' body language. On the basis of that test, Peter Peacock is competence personified. It is rare indeed that the Education Minister has to turn to his advisers for guidance or that they have to intervene to come to his rescue or that they find themselves explaining away embarrassing gaffes.

Politically, the 54-year-old Peacock is an apparent latecomer, having joined the Labour Party only in 1997. But he claims to have found his sense of social justice in the improbable setting of the Scouts, when he was aged around 13 in his home town of Hawick. He says that gave him a broad sense of political awareness rather than directing him to a specific political party.

"I don't remember any political discussion at home and I had no idea how my parents voted," he says. "When I went to Jordanhill, I was not actively involved in party politics, although I was for a time on the student representative council." None the less, it was probably a pointer to the future that the young Peacock emerged from Jordanhill with a diploma in youth work and community service.

One source of his developing political and community awareness was his history teacher at Hawick High, Jock Houston, "a great teacher who made a major impression on me". It is a point he drives home to those who fear his curricular reforms will, as one teacher put it to him, "make history a thing of the past". Not so, Peacock says: thanks to Houston, "history is one of my passions".

Other passions developed from his time spent as a community worker in Orkney and with the Citizens Advice Bureaux in the Highlands and nationally. The CAB, he says, sharpened his political antennae. "It made me acutely aware of the very fine line between apparent success and apparent failure, and how the balance could be tipped so easily, whether by a death in the family, an accident at work, the loss of a job, or whatever."

It was this period that led to Peacock's most formative experience, working in local government. His time with the CAB had involved a great deal of contact with local authorities. "We were appalled by many of them," he says candidly, "particularly their failure to inform citizens of their rights."

Perhaps a whiff of new Labour was evident even then.

In 1982, he was first elected to Highland Region, where he cut his political teeth and served as a councillor for 17 years. Peacock rose rapidly, becoming finance convener in 1986, spending 12 years chairing the budget committee and ending up as council leader. "I wouldn't have missed being a councillor for anything," he says. "It was a great learning experience" - a frequent Peacock refrain.

One of those learning experiences has driven another of his passions, the time he spent having to implement cuts in council spending and even being forced to impose the poll tax. "I still feel a deep sense of anger at what the Tories did in dismantling public services during those years," he says.

Perhaps this is why one leading Tory MSP describes him as "old Labour - to the core".

Not many in the "old Labour" ranks might so describe him, still wary of someone who only joined the party two years before he took up ministerial office. Peacock reveals, however: "I had made a vow to myself to join the Labour Party in 1982 but didn't get round to it." There was little pressure, given the resistance in rural councils such as Highland to operate on party political lines. Officially, he continued to be elected as an "independent" councillor.

He eventually progressed to the national scene, becoming vice-president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. But Peacock had no expectation of ministerial office in 1999 - and neither did his new Labour colleagues. As one party MSP, who is very much a fan, put it: "Any red-blooded socialist credentials he might have don't register on anyone's radar."

But Donald Dewar, the late First Minister, impressed by Peacock's formidable intelligence, set his sights beyond the radar.

Having had two periods in education, one as depute and one as minister in charge, Peacock believes longevity has allowed him to bring clear and consistent messages to schools. "I have been aware that, in the early days, people listening to me might have felt, 'well, we've had so many education ministers, what's the point of paying attention to what he says: there will be another one along in a minute'."

He now believes he has a depth of understanding of the issues and has been able to build solid relationships with people.

Peacock's abilities are not in doubt. He has taken 17 bills through parliament, including finance measures when he was a minister in that department between his educational stints. His achievement is that he appears to have won plaudits from both the educational and political communities for his performance.

Rosemarie Andrew, head of his old school, Drumlanrig St Cuthbert's primary in Hawick, was highly impressed when he paid a visit. She says: "Under his leadership, the profession has had a time of peace, which has allowed education to move forward. My last years in education - and I have been in teaching for almost 40 years - have been exciting and positive under a minister who works hard for education, knows what he is talking about and is visible and approachable."

Critics in the classroom have a different perspective, citing discipline, mainstreaming and class sizes as unresolved issues. Peacock points to the millions poured into schools to help improve behaviour and has been at pains to acknowledge that "inclusion is challenging and it is also desirable - but not at any price".

From the political side, Alasdair Morrison, Labour MSP for the Western Isles and a former minister, who has watched Peacock closely, says he is "highly competent and, whether he is dealing with the parliament's education committee or finessing legislation through parliament, there is no operator like Peter".

He pays tribute, too, to his ability to push through political priorities against mandarin rules - like the specialist Gaelic school in Glasgow, which the minister himself notches up as a considerable achievement.

His political critics, of course, do not see it that way, berating him for his failure to adopt Tony Blair's Westminster education reforms in Scotland. Peacock remains adamant that "England has different challenges and they will find their own solutions to their problems, as we will find solutions to ours". And as one of Scotland's most widely travelled education ministers, Peacock has frequently signalled his intention to learn from elsewhere. "I don't regard England as the only reference point,"

he comments.

Peacock has had many other "highs" during his tenure, singling out the 2000 education act that set the improvement framework for schools, established mainstreaming provision and introduced the inspection of education authorities. The McCrone inquiry, the Schools of Ambition agenda and the curriculum reforms are among the other initiatives which, he believes, "give coherence to what we are doing and provide the vehicles for improvement into the future".

Peacock is not so willing to be drawn on the "lows", although, clearly, the exams debacle that happened on his watch with Sam Galbraith in 2000 is the major one. While acknowledging the disintegration as "a tough period" and paying loyal tribute to Galbraith's willingness to take the flak, he is more interested in the lessons that were learnt - a more robust exam system, better planning of major national projects like the new qualifications regime, a clearer relationship with arm's length bodies like the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the importance of building links with schools.

That was, in many ways, a classic Peacock response - reflective, measured, optimistic, enthusiastic, realistic. He gives the impression of living out his message for schools, describing for instance his experience of taking the 2000 act through parliament as "a thoroughly enjoyable experience, enormously intellectually stimulating". It is a pleasingly appropriate summary from an Education Minister of what education is supposed to be about.

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