Review of the Year - From one Education Secretary to another ... a few words of advice

1st January 2010 at 00:00
Beware those prickly secondary heads, make YouTube your friend, and always remember that in the world of politics, it's the perception that really counts

Dear Mike,

Well, it's been quite a year - and I wish you all the luck in the world: you'll need it. It was good of Alex to arrange a job swap between us, and I must say I find the world of culture so cultivated - didn't you find? I thought, however, that I would be able to spend more evenings with the children and get to know the real world of education again, but the arts world only seems to want to go out at night.

Anyway, I thought I would help you on your way by offering some words of wisdom and guidance. Hopefully, you'll have a more constructive experience with the opposition than I had, now that dreadful Brankin woman has left the Labour frontbench. She didn't seem to realise that the more she called for my resignation, the more fireproof I became. I'm afraid it wasn't her what did for me, but that hypersensitive bunch, otherwise known as Scotland's secondary heads. They just can't take a joke: I think their very expensive cars are parked on a sense-of-humour bypass.

But you'll need to keep in with them - and persuade more people to become heads (unbelievable that John MacBeath and his researchers found only 8 per cent of teachers want to become heads). They are key to helping you with what I used to call "transformational change" in the curriculum. Little did I realise that I myself would be transformed in the process.

As you well know, perception is everything in the world of politics and education. It beggars belief that I'm now being paraded on YouTube as some kind of Hitlerian figure, when it was only a few short months ago that I was portrayed as Alex's "weakest link". In any case, the dictatorial image is a gross misrepresentation: to my certain knowledge, I have never worn a uniform. (I am mindful that your invaluable head of schools, Colin MacLean, told directors of education in November that teachers must ensure their pupils are able to use YouTube effectively; I hope this wasn't what he had in mind.)

So here's my take on the year:


Notice we've now dropped the initial "A" - even The TESS has followed suit. This became the classic curate's egg - good and bad in parts. The EIS's Ronnie Smith gave us a New Year fillip, praising me for my "commitment and leadership" in pushing ahead with the new curriculum and delaying implementation for a year to 2010. By November, he was singing a rather different tune, suggesting it could all be put at risk if I didn't show more leadership on education funding - despite the local authorities' record #163;34.9 billion from this Government.

We've obviously committed ourselves to this journey, but we need to do more to win over the doubters. Despite the fact that I let them have an extra day for inservice training in each of the next three years and gave the go-ahead for seconding 100 experienced teachers to help out (which means jobs for younger teachers), I still got brickbacks like "drop in the ocean". At this stage, the three things you'll need to concentrate on to convince people you are the man with the plan are: assessment, literacy and numeracy testing and continuing professional development. Plus, get Lindsay Paterson on board and get a communications strategy. No pressure.


This is another curate's egg - but it's mostly bad. Although we can point to places like East Ayrshire and West Lothian councils for making steady progress to a class maximum of 18 pupils in P1-3, there are scarcely any signs of commitment elsewhere (no resources at all from 11 councils, according to the TESS budget survey in February). The trouble with our policy is that, apart from our spending plans being blown off course by Westminster politicians and worthless bankers, nobody really believes in it - with the notable exceptions of your good self and the EIS (even my favourite inspector, Graham Donaldson, and Alex's economic advisory council, expressed doubts).

I see you made a quick move to buy time with the local authorities by giving them carte blanche to make even less progress towards our target. Hmm. I would wait to see what wheezes David Cameron comes up with in the remit I gave him to report on class sizes. As former president of ADES, he could throw us a lifeline. I think I know what it may be.


This is really the one issue where the local authorities have badly let us down, concordat or no concordat. I got into a spot of bother in March for naming and shaming Glasgow, Renfrewshire, North Lanarkshire and Aberdeen as responsible for half the 1,000 fall in the number of teachers (that was before the drop of 1,348 reported in November, which also did for me). But je ne regrette rien.

However, and I suspect you're not a fan, even if we don't take direct control of education away from the local authorities, as I suggested in my final speech as Education Secretary (what a way to go), we have to do something. We cannot keep on having to explain away headlines about the lack of jobs for young teachers after their probationary year, which forces us to take emergency action that looks like panic - such as cutting millions from teacher training or ploughing #163;10 million into a "teacher refresh" scheme of early retirements.

I've been thinking about this, and now believe you should bite the bullet: restore ring-fencing for the specific purpose of getting teacher numbers up to the 53,000 of 2007 and improving the job prospects for young teachers (there's a real possibility people will stop applying for teacher training places because they believe they won't get a job - so quality as well as quantity would suffer). The authorities might squeal, but nobody much likes them. In any case, you could claim the moral high ground and the public would take our side. You would have such fun.


Blame it all on Labour and the Lib Dems, I'd say. The inspectors gave us their Improving Scottish Education report in January, which said we had been standing still for three years, but it covered 2005-08, and the last year was only a year into our term in office. The same could be said of the brouhaha about the Timss results on maths and science, and the John McLaren findings about under-achievement and overspending on education. Even the Scottish Survey of Achievement, which reported on maths performance in April, showing an alarming dip in the number of pupils reaching the expected standard from 85 per cent in P3 to 30 per cent in S2, was conducted in May 2008 - but who believes in the SSA anyway?

Wasn't it interesting how Iain Gray reacted, saying Labour might have to "break with the past" if the party's policies in England could be shown to be achieving better results. You should make more of that.


And this is another fine mess we've inherited from Labour, saddling us with millions of pounds' worth of debt to pay for its PPP legacy. No wonder we're taking our time to get the best solution. Pity about the Scottish Futures Trust, though; still, better to take time to get it right. My experience here shows how ungrateful are our opponents: even after I announced a #163;1.25 billion programme to modernise 55 schools, still they girn, going so far as to accuse us of favouring our political heartlands. The very idea!

Our esteemed parliamentary researchers in SPICe told us in October that only 216 of the 528 schools built and refurbished in the past decade were PPP ones, that there were 79 more schools classed as being in "good" condition in 2009 than in 2005 and 153 fewer schools in a "bad" state. I'll leave this good news to your presentational skills.


What can I say? Although we've been blown off course by the economic storm, we cannot keep blaming it for everything - accusations levelled at Westminster are another matter. But we can't have councils like my bete noire, Glasgow, running around telling schools not to spend any more on photocopying. But, alas, we've signed away any right to intervene with that bright idea of Alex and John, the concordat (oops, yes, I signed it too).

I'm happy to bequeath my big stick to you - the threat to take control of education away from councils. I'm not sure directors of education, or even many teachers, would be too unhappy with that - but we'd never get it through the Parliament. But you'll know from that barnstorming address of mine to ADES that councils have spent #163;110m destined for education on other purposes, although their spending on education has actually gone up by some 5 per cent. Bring on the inquiry.


That's not all, of course. I've also had to contend with some wobbles on child protection, pupils' fitness, special needs, school closures - I've forgotten the rest. But remember, when you feel swamped by negativity, that there's lots of good stuff going on in our schools - as I'm sure your good wife (pass on my festive best, by the way) will constantly remind you.

But the most important thing to remember is that, as one of my former wise officials (former to me, not formerly wise) put it recently: "The education system has a very strong immune system: if it doesn't like something, it will just reject it."

As they say in one part of my new portfolio, Bliadhna Mhath Ur.

Yours aye,



- David Eaglesham, general Secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (retired)

- Andrew Melville, East Lothian primary head (struck off)

- Maureen Watt, Schools and Skills Minister (sacked)

- Angela Dunning, Dundee secondary teacher (struck off)

- Ian Fraser, director of education in Inverclyde (sacked)

- Stephen McInally, West Dunbartonshire RE teacher (struck off)

- Judith McClure, headteacher of St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh (retired)

- Kathleen Marshall, Children's Commissioner (retired)

- Margaret Doran, director of education in Glasgow (retired early)

- Rhona Brankin, Labour's education spokesperson (resigned)

- Fiona Hyslop, Education Secretary (demoted)

- David Wilson, headteacher of Auchmuty High in Fife (resigned and jailed).

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