There's a wasp working in the Horlicks

1st June 2007 at 01:00
Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish Parliament, now rediscovering the real world of employment

Watch out for that Fiona Hyslop woman; don't let her delightful smile fool you. The new education secretary was seen by many of her opponents in parliamentary debates to be, in comparison with Nicola Sturgeon, the acceptable face of nationalism - only to find they had underrated her. It never took much provocation for her to reveal a waspish tongue, giving as good as she got, and then some.

In dealing with her mandarins she has at least one advantage: she has children of her own and is not afraid to draw upon their experience to make points about nursery or primary school provision. No doubt her multitude of departmental policy anoraks will suffer the same technique if their theory is not grounded in reality.

As for policy, the SNP is unlikely to bring forward an Education Bill without advance agreement with parties that would give it a safe passage.

Not only could it be shot down, worse still, it could be amended by a coalition of the opposition, so it is better to leave well alone. The next few months will probably witness a phoney war, where Alex Salmond and his team have open-ended debates in an effort to tease out where any consensus lies between parties. Only then will legislation be thought of.

Fiona Hyslop is probably not worried about this. There is much that can be done through guidance, launching yet more policy initiatives and putting the finance into promises about teacher numbers that will be required to make small class sizes work. So long as Hyslop can coax the local authorities to work with her, she may just get some improvement in her chosen direction of travel, but she shouldn't be setting herself targets.

They're just for teachers.

There were times when an SNP education speech could resemble the latest briefing from the Educational Institute of Scotland. Indeed, sometimes I had to squint my eyes to make sure Nicola Sturgeon was not actually Ronnie Smith in a skirt. Once Hyslop came along, all that changed. Sure, she still pandered to the public sector unions like her front-bench colleagues, but less obviously so. I figured she must have written her own speeches, probably at the kitchen table over a cup of cocoa (or something stronger, like Horlicks) after putting her kids to bed at night - rather than being handed it by a policy wonk from the SNP's research team. She seemed altogether more human than most MSPs.

What this all means for past SNP promises on school sports, free fruit, Scottish history, more teachers in this subject and more in that - it is too early to say. After all, the SNP probably doesn't know either. What we can expect to happen is that Labour MSPs will be poring over all the past speeches of SNP front benchers, so they can remind Salmond and Hyslop what they are meant to be doing.

Then there is the promise to cover the outstanding debt of graduates who have not repaid their student loans. How about the unfortunates who have already coughed up - might I make a plea on their behalf? (And no, I didn't have one.) It is costly stuff and won't make a single person brighter or more qualified. Methinks the mildest opposition to this scheme will be grasped as an opportunity to drop it - channelling the money instead to financing new teachers, where Hyslop's work will be cut out.

Foreign language teaching is allegedly a priority. Before the rush to attract new graduates, might I ask that Hyslop considers what language should really be taught to our future generations? Chinese? Spanish? And what about reviving Latin? Now, Ronnie Smith would like that.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today