When the Saltire flies on Calton Hill

25th April 1997 at 01:00
If Labour wins the election a Scottish parliament will be running education within three years.David Henderson reports on the impact it is likely to have

The campaign to encourage a double yes vote in any referendum on a Scottish parliament is being backed by around Pounds 40,000 from the Educational Institute of Scotland's political fund. This is no philanthropic gesture. Long-time advocates of consensus in developing educational policy, the union views a parliament as an ideal opportunity to further its agenda.

A legislative body in the former Royal High School building in Edinburgh, elected under proportional representation, is likely to spell an end to educational policy forced through in the teeth of widespread opposition. Change will have to be delivered by broad agreement if it is to have any chance of success and the EIS believes it is well placed to influence decision-makers.

Judith Gillespie, former convener of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and arch-opponent of many Conservative policies over the past 10 years also anticipates that no one party will dominate. On current forecasts, Labour will be the largest grouping but may be pushed into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and possibly the SNP, a fix not dissimilar to that in the former Tayside and Grampian regions.

Mrs Gillespie, a contributor to behind-the-scenes constitutional planning, believes a new committee system and different modes of operation will ensure greater policy co-operation. "There will be a need to look at issues and say whether legislation is needed and how likely it would be to get consensus. If you do not have consensus, there will be no action," she believes. More power could be handed to the Scottish Office, the executive arm of the parliament, in such a scenario.

Any education reforms, and Mrs Gillespie believes vested interests may still need to be challenged, will not come through revolution. "It will have to be through evolution but evolution still means change," she warns.

But while too cosy a consensus could be restrictive, it will be much easier to lobby MSPs (members of the Scottish parliament). No more travelling to Westminster to doorstep ministers and MPs. A shorter trip to Edinburgh or to touring committees gathering evidence is sure to bring more interest groups into regular contact with the channels of government.

The model set by the cross-party approach to the Children Act, where MPs took evidence from interest groups across the country, is etched in the planners' minds. The Scottish Campaign Against Drugs is another. Esther Roberton, former co-ordinator of the Scottish Constitutional Campaign and ex-director of the Scottish Community Education Council, says any legislative process will be "slower, more thorough and more dull in terms of parliamentary theatre but more effective because it has got a stronger consensus".

Mrs Roberton, who is to direct the new "Yes, Yes" campaign in any referendum, believes a parliament will take a genuinely co-operative approach to local government while the same spirit of consultation will be woven into the policy-making framework.

She senses education will be "fundamental" to a new regime at the Scottish Office, which, as it more or less does now, will control the entire budget for education, from nurseries to universities and continuing education. Fortunately for education, it may experience less upheaval than other government departments, which could struggle to break free from London's shackles. Education and training could be handled by one of around 10 committees, backed by a specialist Scottish minister.

Charles Gray, former Strathclyde leader and now education convener in North Lanarkshire, is an enthusiastic reformer. "If a Scottish parliament is permitted to decide where the money goes, that is a tremendous leap forward. It is immoral that one man (the Secretary of State) decides where the block grant goes," Mr Gray argues. The present block grant amounts to Pounds 14.5 billion.

From his visits to Europe, where he sits as one of five Scottish representatives on the Committee of the Regions, Mr Gray is constantly chivvied by the Catalonian president about Scotland's lack of autonomy. He hopes the gibes will not stick for much longer.

He acknowledges that Labour will be unable to run a parliament with an absolute majority and hopes an early task will be to review local government after its recent battering. More contentiously, he wants a parliament to overhaul the work of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee on teacher pay. "There has to be a new protocol between the teaching profession and the government. There has to be a recognition that things do not have to stay the same - salaries, conditions of service and hours," he says.

Mr Gray is optimistic a parliament will not "Hoover up powers". Others are less certain. John Travers, president of the Association of Directors of Education and director in North Ayrshire, believes education will be a crucial test of its commitment to local democracy.

"It will be tempting," he says, "to try to run the whole of Scotland from Victoria Quay. But one of the strengths of our education system has been the opportunity for local diversity and flexibility within overall national guidelines. It would be very unfortunate if a Scottish parliament were to suck in powers from local authorities.

"A possible benefit of a parliament would be a reassertion of the separateness of our education system. We have suffered in recent years from imports such as opting out and vouchers which have no place in the Scottish educational tradition," Mr Travers states.

An altogether darker picture is painted by Elizabeth Maginnis, the local authorities' education spokeswoman. "I cannot for the life of me see a new Scottish parliament being content to leave the delivery of the education services in the hands of local authorities. This will be particularly the case if, as I suspect, standards reach stasis, if they do not actually fall, " Mrs Maginnis argues.

"I don't think it is impossible to speculate that within a decade local authority education departments as they are understood today will cease to exist. Instead we will find many of the strategic functions sucked up towards a Scottish parliament which will take the responsibility for national direction on policy."

Councils would be left with residual responsibilities, such as pupil support or special education. "All of the rest of the functions carried out by an education department, which could be delivered locally, will be placed in the hands of headteachers - recruitment, payroll, in-service training. The possibilities are quite obvious."

Mrs Maginnis envisages that such a structure of extended devolved management, overlaid by national policy from a Scottish parliament and the Scottish Office, could effectively make opting-out legislation redundant. "This is no doomsday scenario I paint," she states, "rather a simple recognition that too many small centres of power such as the present 32 local authorities mean no power at all."

From the Conservative side, Astrid Ritchie, chair of the party's education committee, shares the concerns but from an altogether different angle. The higher spending per head in Scotland and the extra spent on education because of the formula under which Scotland shares the UK budget will be endangered, she forecasts.

Mrs Ritchie wrote in The TES Scotland last week: "The Barnett formula currently brings an extra Pounds 3.8 billion to Scotland: providing solid investment in educational quality and opportunity. I fear that destabilising this golden goose would prove truly to be an operation without anaesthetic. "

Timetable for change

* White Paper in June

* Referendum by late September or early October

* Bill through Parliament by October 1998

* Elections 1999

* Scottish parliament meets in Edinburgh later that year or 2000.

* The 129-member parliament, sitting for four years, is likely to comprise 50 per cent women andbe elected through proportional representation. Projections based on the last two general electionsshow Labour with more than 50 seats and the Tories around 30.The Liberal Democrats and SNP would be roughly equal.

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