Well-wishers urge new minister to tread carefully

28th November 2014 at 00:00
Angela Constance faces a hard road in top education job

Senior education figures have welcomed the appointment of Angela Constance as Scotland's new education and lifelong learning secretary, following the departure of Michael Russell after five years in the post.

The appointment was announced last week as part of a government reshuffle by the new first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. It is the second Cabinet role taken by Ms Constance, 44, after she became Cabinet secretary for training, youth and women's employment in April.

Her appointment was not without controversy at the time; some criticised the move as an attempt by the government to woo women voters in the run-up to September's independence referendum.

But Ms Constance had already demonstrated her interest in education. After becoming an MSP in 2007, she served as minister for skills and lifelong learning and as the UK's first dedicated minister for youth employment - a cause that many believe remains close to her heart.

Ms Constance takes over the education remit after years of dramatic changes driven by Mr Russell, and as reforms such as the regionalisation of the college sector and Curriculum for Excellence are still being embedded.

Financial constraints within the sector will undoubtedly prove a challenge, but her political style is seen by many as a sharp contrast to that of her predecessor. She has so far largely avoided controversy and confrontation, and gained a reputation for being personable and friendly.

Ms Constance's own education was varied. Having studied at West Calder High School and Bo'ness Academy, she went on to study at West Lothian College, and Stirling and Glasgow universities. She became a social worker, a mental health officer and a local councillor before entering Parliament.

Youth employment and early implementation work around the Wood Commission's recommendations formed key focal points in Ms Constance's previous Cabinet and ministerial posts, and this is expected to continue in her new role.

She is also widely known for her fashion sense and love of shoes. During her campaign to become deputy leader of the SNP, a slogan on her social networking profile, next to a picture of her famous Bambi heels, read: "I won't be trying to fill Nicola [Sturgeon's] shoes, but I think she has her eye on mine."

Both unions and students have welcomed her appointment, citing her experience in national politics and local government, as well as her ongoing focus on the interests of young people.

"She has the needs of young people at her heart," said Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland. "If you start there, the rest works itself out. She has been supportive of education generally, with a special focus on getting youngsters into the workplace. I am expecting a focus on the poverty agenda and getting people on to coherent career pathways."

John Fyffe, president of education directors' body ADES, added: "Our members have worked with her in developing opportunities for young people in the area of employability. Her background in social work will shape her thinking, particularly in the area of children's services."

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, welcomed Ms Constance's appointment but highlighted the challenges facing Scottish education: education budgets, teacher numbers, pay and conditions, CfE and new qualifications.

Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, also stressed that there was much still to be achieved, including improvements to accountability for schools and colleges and the implementation of a more "flexible education system, from school through to employment, which meets the needs of students".

Meanwhile, Henry McLeish, the former Labour first minister and chair of the regional board for Glasgow colleges, said he looked forward to working closely with Ms Constance "to secure future radical change in the college sector and in particular [the government's] help with tackling inequality and developing much greater social mobility."

Ministerial brief

1982-87 Attends West Calder High and Bo'ness Academy

1988-91 MA in social science at the University of Glasgow

1995-96 Studies part-time for a certificate in welfare studies at West Lothian College

1996-98 Earns an MSc in social work at the University of Stirling

1997-2007 Sits on West Lothian council while pursuing a career in social work

2007 Elected MSP for the Almond Valley constituency

2010 Minister for skills and lifelong learning, then, from 2011, for children and young people

2011-2014 Minister for youth employment

April 2014 Appointed Cabinet secretary for training, youth and women's employment

November 2014 Promoted to Cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning

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