Schools set to take top billing

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
THE new First Minister has decided to continue with the split education brief, handing the schools portfolio to his leadership rival Jack McConnell and the post-school remit to Wendy Alexander, one of his campaign supporters (FE Focus, page 36).

The reshuffle, announced by Henry McLeish on Sunday, caused some surprise because Mr McConnell had declared publicly that he wanted to remain as Finance Minister. Although that job allowed him to maintain contact and therefore influence across all ministeries, his major work was effectively accomplished with the spending plans for the next three years which he announced in September.

Mr McConnell's move to education is therefore assumed to be a job he wanted since he had emerged politically strengthened from his contest with Mr McLeish and could have remained at Finance had he insisted. He will now have to live with the educational consequences of his spending decisions, a crucial test as pressure inevitably mounts on the Executive to dig deep into its pockets to fund the outcome of the current negotiations on teachers' pay and conditions.

The new minister comes to his job with some baggage from the classroom and the council chamber, although it is not clear which is the heavier. He was a maths teacher for nine years until 1992, and was a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland (though no longer). But he was also a member of Stirling District Council during that period, becoming leader from 1990-92, so he will be well aware of the dim view many councillors take of the teacher unions.

Mr McConnell therefore has some understanding of classroom realities and will no doubt be under pressure to demonstrate his sensitivities. But the soubriquet of "the teacher's friend" is unlikely to sit comfortably on his shoulders. His record as the minister responsible for "modernising government", a remit he has now lost, showed he was every bit as thirled to concepts such as performance-related pay - and no doubt other "unpopular" reforms - as any education minister south of the border. The unions, in Blairite terms, can expect "fairness not favours".

Although he is no longer the official "Mr Moderniser", that is probably how he would want to be seen educationally. At the age of 40, he has clearly not lost his fierce political ambitions so he undoubtedly intends tomake a splash in his new role.

The last educational will and testament of Donald Dewar, the late First Minister, should give him some immediate food for thought (page four). As a former general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, Mr McConnell will be no slouch if it comes to campaigning for change. Nor is he afraid to take risks, as his leadership bid showed.

The unions and others with whom he comes into contact will notice an immediate change from the gruff and grudging style of Sam Galbraith, his predecessor, who has been appointed Environment Minister. Renowned for his charm and, some say, a touch of charisma, Mr McConnell had a reputation in his Stirling Council days of getting on with people and steering clear of aloof leadership tendencies.

The new minister's job description is that of Minister for Education, Europe and External Affairs, which allows him to keep his political contacts with Whitehall and Brussels. It ditches Mr Galbraith's title of "Children and Education", but the Scottish Executive makes it clear that pre-schooling, children and young people still go with the job. The Education Minister will, however, no longer be responsible for sport, culture and the arts which remain with Mr Galbraith.

Although Mr McConnell has full responsibility for school education, Wendy Alexander's post-school brief as Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning means they will share responsibility for Higher Still. Ms Alexander's department has now lost responsiblity for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, so that particular piece of unfinished business will now be solely one for Mr McConnell.

Mr McConnell will have only one deputy, Nicol Stephen, the Liberal Democrat, who was Mr McLeish's number two at Enterprise and Lifelong Learning. Peter Peacock, the former Deputy Children and Education Minister, moves to a similar rank at the newly created ministry of finance and local government.

Meanwhile, Mary Mulligan is to step down as chair of the Parliament's committee on education, culture and sport at the end of its inquiry on the school exams crisis. This follows her appointment as parliamentary private secretary to the First Minister, a post which has been the traditional channel for keeping open communications between senior ministers and backbenchers.

Leader, page 18

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