Russell returns to office with more reform powers

27th May 2011 at 01:00
Education Secretary back in the hot-seat with new team of troubleshooters

Michael Russell returns as Education Secretary with a stronger mandate to push through reforms - but an in-tray full of seemingly intractable problems.

Flanked by junior ministers Angela Constance, who moves from skills to early years, and newcomer Alasdair Allan, who takes over a combined brief of skills and Gaelic, he faces turbulence from education unions on a number of fronts.

The most immediate test will be whether councils deliver the promised 1,800 jobs for post-probationers next session to meet their target of 51,131 teachers' jobs.

Mr Russell has promised to "refresh" the Government's relationship with councils, recognising that in certain areas - notably class-size cuts - local authorities have not delivered government policy. Devolved school management could prove a bloody battlefield, depending on the extent to which he attempts to wrest education from council control.

The teachers' agreement may be a done deal, thanks to narrow backing from the EIS union, but the manner in which Cosla and the Government appeared to "stitch up" the negotiations in advance has left a sour taste in the mouths of union negotiators.

Ronnie Smith, EIS general secretary, told TESS it was therefore even more important that the Government approached the McCormac review of teacher employment in a "free-standing and independent way", after its "inappropriate" bilateral negotiations with the local authorities' umbrella body, leaving the teachers' side out of the talks until late in the process. He fears the review has been set up as a "stalking horse" to cover the Government's ambition for reducing spending on education.

Mr Russell's biggest challenge on the universities front will be on funding - his calculation that Scotland is only pound;93 million adrift of England has been widely challenged by the HE sector, which puts the gap at between pound;200m and pound;250m.

He must also turn the recommendations of the Donaldson review of initial teacher education into a reality in a climate of budget cutbacks - no mean feat.

Full implementation of Curriculum for Excellence remains the "elephant in the room", Mr Smith said.

"He will ultimately be judged on the extent to which he is able to protect the position of education at the Cabinet table. The key decisions will be taken by local authorities. He's got to find a way to get to grips with local authorities and their interpretation of the concordat," said the EIS general secretary.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, wants Mr Russell and his team to focus less on measuring education by numbers and more on the quality of education.

There were some very public spats between Mr Russell and the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association in the last administration, particularly over Curriculum for Excellence. Nevertheless, SSTA general secretary Ann Ballinger welcomes his reappointment and says she hopes he will reconsider plans to create a two-tier qualifications system with National 4 based entirely on internal assessment and National 5 with a final external exam.

THE JUNIOR MINISTERIAL TEAM

Angela Constance, who as minister for skills and lifelong learning for four months in the last Scottish Government barely had time to get to grips with her brief, is minister for children and young people. The portfolio will be close to her heart as the mother of a young child. A former social worker and mental health officer from West Lothian, the post's focus on integrated services seems a natural fit with her prior experience. Ms Constance replaces Adam Ingram, one of the few casualties of the Cabinet reshuffle, who was widely seen as a competent, safe pair of hands for successfully steering through the Children's Hearing Bill.

Alasdair Allan, who becomes a minister for the first time, is in charge of learning and skills, with special responsibility for Gaelic and Scots. Fluent in both, the Western Isles MSP will be expected to steer through plans to develop Scottish studies in schools. Regarded as one of the most articulate MSPs, he is also seen as a "cultural" as well as political nationalist. He was named Gaelic journalist of the year in 2006, is a former senior media relations officer with the Church of Scotland, and has a PhD in Scots language.

THE OPPOSITION BENCHES

Veteran Labour politician Malcolm Chisholm will be Michael Russell's chief sparring partner across the floor of the Parliament. He is seen as an idealistic, free-thinker on the left of the party who is very much his own man. He served briefly as a parliamentary under-secretary of state for local government and transport in Tony Blair's 1997 government, before resigning in protest at cuts to lone parent benefit. He has been minister for health and community care and subsequently communities in the Labour- Lib Dem Scottish Executive, but resigned from the latter post in 2006 in protest at Labour's decision to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Claire Baker, who led on further and higher education for Labour prior to the election, will be Mr Chisholm's deputy.

With the Liberal Democrats' group reduced to five MSPs, Liam McArthur takes on the combined brief of education and energy. The Orkney MSP was a special adviser to the former Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace.

Liz Smith, who taught economics and modern studies at George Watson's College in Edinburgh prior to entering Holyrood, continues in her role as the Scottish Tories' education spokeswoman.

chris.small@tes.co.uk.

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