The task ahead for a Labour government

25th April 1997 at 01:00
It is time for a change in Scottish education. The Tories opened up schools to parental choice, but over the years their ideas have become less and less relevant. The Prime Minister enthuses about a grammar school in every town. He means in England, but how long would it be until such fatal undermining of the comprehensive system filtered north, as did the unwanted opting-out legislation?

Labour, which looks like winning the election, has the support of many teachers, possibly a majority in Scotland. It has the opportunity to offer parents and teachers fresh hope after years of battling against the policies of a minority government. But it needs to be bolder and more resolute than it has shown itself throughout the election campaign. It is a sad comment that few people expect it to make a real difference in schools. There is a distinction between dampening down unrealistic expectations and destroying hope. Labour leaders are in danger of reinforcing the cynical mood of staffrooms, which should not be the starting point for a left-of-centre government. In pledging new short-term revenue only from the rundown of the assisted places scheme, the party is woefully exposed.

On all fronts in government it will need to act with determination. The buttering up of middle England has to stop when the votes are counted. There will be no greater challenge than the implementation of Scottish devolution. Question marks over Tony Blair's personal commitment aside, there will be little enthusiasm among newly elected English Labour MPs for month upon month of Scottish and Welsh legislation. But starting with the referendum campaign, Labour must ensure that constitutional reform goes through. Only with a Scottish parliament will decisions about our education system be taken where they belong.

Labour is not sole custodian of the Constitutional Convention. The present electoral system (fortunately to be reformed for the Scottish parliament) will hand Labour far more seats north of the border than its percentage of the vote deserves. The prospects for constitutional change will be enhanced if next week sees the return of a stronger block of Liberal Democrats, who are resolutely behind home rule as well as widely admired for honest acceptance that education and health need more money from the taxpayer. The Scottish Nationalists should be poised to punish electorally any Labour backsliding.

The first job of incoming ministers will be to scrutinise controversial programmes. The nursery vouchers scheme will disappear unlamented. Plans to add yet more compulsory tests in schools should be abandoned. The Higher Still programme will be reviewed and probably delayed. A Labour Secretary of State will also have to plan to spend when finance is made available (sooner or later taxes will need to go up). And there will have to be a difficult balancing act for two or three years between working through Westminster and preparing to repatriate Scottish education.

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