Review of the year

4th January 2008 at 00:00
The first year of SNP government has drawn to a close and the Education Secretary has given the First Minister an account of her stewardship - exclusive to The TESS. Illustration: Paul Bateman.

Dear Alex,

As I put fingers to keyboard to give you my annual report (doesn't that sound good!) on the state of Scottish education, we're in the midst of a blizzard of comparative statistics.

Today, it is the "non-league" tables of exam results (thank you, yes, Linlithgow Academy did very well - not that I'm bothered, of course); during the week we've had truancy rates, with the press deciding to focus on parents who go on holiday (no blame for us there!); and then there were all the international comparisons, which you could interpret however you wanted. But where, I ask, are the comparisons between governments?

I mean who actually remembers Hugh Henry? Mention of him and Jack McConnell sounds so "yesterday". Still, there is one comparative study in which I take great pleasure. In February, Unicef research found that our young people were the most unhappy in Europe. New research by Edinburgh University has now found that young people in Scotland are happier than ever before. That's what I call a result for an SNP government!


However, down to serious business and what a time it's been since our magnificent victory! In the beginning, it seemed so simple. We had consulted widely on the manifesto and hit the floor running with a list of priorities that apparently had universal approval - a focus on early years, health promotion and, in particular, smaller classes. Everyone had promoted smaller class sizes prior to the election and our bid of 18 simply won the day.

Yet, no sooner are we in, than people are arguing that it's not the right way to go. On the one hand, they are saying that it would be better to extend the West Dunbartonshire literacy programme across Scotland - and where were they before the election? On the other hand, they are asking how we're going to pay for smaller classes.

Before the summer recess, I went along to the education committee, expecting an adult debate on the way forward, and suddenly found myself being challenged by what felt like a bunch of rottweilers on why we hadn't implemented our manifesto commitments (yet!) and were we going to offer guarantees of achieving them in this Parliament? And there was I thinking we had pre-empted any such challenges by refusing to set target dates.

It wasn't helpful when that unreconstructed Labour bastion, Glasgow City Council, came forward claiming that the pound;40 million for accommodation costs and 300 extra teachers that we had provided for the whole of Scotland wouldn't even be enough to meet their needs for delivering classes of 18 in Glasgow alone.


In the circumstances, I thought it was a stroke of genius for John to come forward with a funding concordat with Cosla, based on achieving outcomes rather than specific targets. The promise to remove earmarked funding quickly got them on side and agreeing to settle for less than their original demand. It was brilliant, because now everything that happens is local government's responsibility. We're completely off the hook.

It was interesting that, in the recent debate on the budget in the education committee, it was Cosla that had the rottweiler treatment for not having hard figures on the cost of delivering cuts in class sizes. I thought they parried brilliantly. Mark you, they came forward with their own "get out of jail free" card, by claiming that the concordat was only about "moving towards" class-size reduction and that achieving it would depend on demography, i.e. falling school rolls.

In the end, it all comes back to parents. If they will insist on having children, we cannot have smaller classes; it's their choice and their responsibility. It would be useful if parents in some areas could have a few more children to boost school rolls. The arguments for keeping small rural schools had seemed so convincing before the election, but now that I see how much they cost, well, a few more children would not come amiss. Perhaps I could talk to Nicola about getting maternity services located in particular areas.


You have to say I am good at problem-solving - the NEET group is no more! To paraphrase the song, we will eliminate the negative, accentuate the positive and talk instead about those needing more choices and more chances. I quite like the suggestion from one wit of a new acronym, "mc2", because that suggests that these youngsters are a source of energy. The trick is to unleash it and that's where A Curriculum for Excellence comes in.

We're back on outcomes and shifting responsibility - this time to schools. Teachers can interpret the outcomes as they will, although if they don't do it right, HMIE will soon hold them to account.

You can always count on the inspectors. Look at the way they called for increased curriculum flexibility in primaries, yet applauded those schools that continued to use the 5-14 national assessments because they provided a safety net and an assurance that there were no risks to pupils' progress in skills.

HMIE are similarly hedging their bets in secondary schools, assigning what schools are now doing by way of good formal teaching to the four capacities of ACfE. This way we can continue to have youngsters pass exams, while appearing to move forward on a new approach. I think we should ignore Lorne Crerar's advice that inspection should be reduced. A more helpful group of folk you couldn't find!


Talking of the inspectors, I don't know if you noticed they launched a 19-hour DVD of video clips of good practice in schools. I don't think it will go to the top of the bestseller list and I refrained from putting it on my Christmas list.


Flicking through my subject file, I find an odd mix to report. I felt some satisfaction in seeing that Scottish history is now to be a compulsory element of the Higher. Shows how the subliminal message of the SNP is getting through. But the decline in the uptake of Gaelic is a bit worrying. I'm glad you've come forward with pound;7.5m by way of support! The new enthusiasm for Chinese is welcome, but it might help if Scottish pupils could all read English first.

On the science front, I see an international survey of 2,700 third-year pupils across 92 secondaries in Scotland found they were most interested in bangs, explosions and things that might affect them personally - tell me something I didn't know! They are also interested in environmental issues, but not to the extent of changing their behaviour, and they are least interested in plants, agriculture, detergents, and dead scientists. No surprises there! I'm not sure how it all squares with a ghoulish suggestion that science should be linked to current issues like the death of Alexander Litvinenko. Rest assured: we will not be putting Polonium 210 in the hands of any pupils in the near future.

Talking of Eastern Europeans, what are we to make of 16-year-old Aleksander Kucharski, who has returned to Poland to complete his education because, he claims, there is no requirement to learn knowledge here; effort is all that is valued!


I find all this "responsibility" for what is done quite daunting. You do realise it is up to me whether exams at SCQF levels 4 and 5 continue or not? I know that's a tough one to cope with in the midst of festive revelry - for a start what isare SCQF levels 4 and 5? Well, it's pretty much Standard grades and apparently it is for ministers (c'est moi) to decide whether we scrap them or not. Of course, I get "advice", but it will still be my name at the bottom of the decision. So no pressure there!


Health seems to be firmly what education is about, despite Nicola's efforts over hospitals and the like. Which bit of health do you want to hear about - sex, obesity or fitness? We cover the lot. I guess our strongest suit is free school meals. As you know, we've set up a free school meal pilot in five authorities and extended entitlement to those on maximum child tax credit, but we still don't seem to be winning children's hearts and minds on the healthy diet front.

Mark you, when you read that the previous Executive's menus for healthy packed lunches included such exotics as egg and couscous salad, I'm not surprised. It's clear that not many of them have ever stood making packed lunches of a morning. Also, I doubt if the resource to demonstrate healthy eating, devised by one Aberdeenshire teacher based on the ration provisions during the Second World War, will have wide appeal.

On the obesityfitness, er, front, I'm not sure how much our knowledge is increased by research that shows obese youngsters are turned off PE because of their experiences; PE reinforces a sense of inadequacy and abnormality. More exciting and more positive was the cheerleading festival organised by East Renfrewshire!


Inevitably, the discipline season arrived with the teaching unions' conferences, as it is a priority topic for them - and the press. However, there was a real press-fest over figures on violence in schools. The Tories had extracted them through a freedom of information request and then managed to show they could do their sums by calculating that there was an attack every 14 minutes on a teacher in Scotland.

In the process, they extended the well-known assertion that there are lies, damn lies and statistics with the new add-on "Tory calculations". Given that Glasgow has the lowest number of violent incidents and Aberdeen the highest, I go along with the assertion that there are lots of variations in what constitutes violence. Perhaps I should give a few demonstration classes to the rottweilers of the education committee and set the Scottish Standard!


Having further and higher education added to my remit has been interesting. Such variation. On the one hand, we had James Watt College facing a deficit, the threat of redundancies and what looked like an all-out war between the lecturers and the principal (it was better than episodes of EastEnders). On the other hand, we have John Wheatley College awarded a prestigious Queen's Anniversary prize for its work in helping to regenerate the east end of Glasgow. In the circumstances, perhaps we should review the legislation that will remove its charitable status.

As for universities, it is quite clear that they simply expect me to provide the money and then keep out of things. Trouble is we can't agree on what constitutes enough money. They asked for pound;168 million and I gave them pound;30 million. They made a fuss, but not that much of a fuss, and their grief doesn't resonate with the tabloid press.

Now, right at the end of the year, we've had the education committee - on the casting vote of the chairperson - coming out against our proposals to scrap the graduate endowment tax. I can see next year is going to be tough. Maybe those demonstration sessions on the meaning of violence should be sooner rather than later.


Well, I'm off to put up the Christmas tree and the decorations. A mother's work is never done, even if she is responsible for the whole of Scottish education.

Meanwhile, I'll send this on to all the various officers who want to scrutinise it. Doubtless, it will be 2008 before it hits your desk.

Kindest regards, Fiona.

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