The questions MSPs shouldn't be afraid to ask;Opinion

8th October 1999 at 01:00
THE Scottish Executive is to be applauded for the unusual honesty at the heart of its Programme for Government: making it work together. Not only does the document allow the people of Scotland to hold ministers and departments accountable for achieving targets and policy commitments. It also presumes that where policy targets may not be "joined up" something can and should be done about it.

This should be warmly welcomed because there are an array of "unjoined" policies and some serious incoherences that make the job of delivering the programme for government in the FE context virtually impossible.

1. The work of the Cubie committee: is it possible to conduct an independent inquiry into student finance with no reference to the benefits system?

2. The FE funding debate: is it really possible to deliver a Government commitment to lifelong learning with no funding for non-certificated courses?

3. Agenda 2000: can an FE service charged to promote community economic development and social inclusion do so with little or no access to European structural funding?

4. The New Deal: is it sensible to have an education and training option which by refusing to accept access to higher education as a positive outcome gives two fingers to the access agenda?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining about the coalition Government or the direction in which we are going. On the contrary, what I am referring to is a necessary set of tensions that can be put down to the "new democracy". This set of tensions comprises both devolution itself and the new departments and their parliamentary committee structures.

Devolution, in terms of the overlap (or not) between, for example, employment and skills development, between industry issues and enterprise development, and between student funding and social security contains an array of structured discontinuities. Likewise, the very structure of the Executive and the parliamentary committee system throw up some ambivalence.

Leaving aside finance and audit, for example, the FE sector should be fully versed in the work programmes and demands of at least five committees dealing with lifelong learning, education, European issues, local government and social inclusion. There may be more. Each committee should be expected as a matter of course to draw up checklists of policy inconsistencies in order to promote a joined-up consensus about getting the policy right.

The high-powered audience at the recent inaugural conference of Glasgow University's faculty of education witnessed a quiet but memorable consensus about this constitutional change. The conference looked at new styles of policy-making and uncovered a seamless link between two respected politicians, both of whom are committee conveners in the new Parliament but who come from opposite ends of the Parliament's political spectrum. It was like a breath of fresh air.

Mary Mulligan, Labour convener of the education, culture and sport committee, described the Parliament's committee system as the key democratic force in terms particularly of engaging the public, making government accessible and accountable as well as promoting equal opportunities.

John Swinney, SNP convener of the enterprise and lifelong learning committee, set out his vision of a multi-layered democracy with parliamentary committees at the core of public scrutiny. Each committee, he argued, should be the focus for measuring the effectiveness of Executive plans including legislation, as well as providing a forum for open and productive debate on new thinking.

This quiet consensus is great news for FE - with, for example, focus groups of young people engaging with legislators on the new education bill or the revitalised approach to community planning and community learning.

I believe in it.

Graeme Hyslop is principal of Langside College, Glasgow, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity. His e mail address is:

aghyslop@langside.ac.uk

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