Wilson replies to his 'stupid press';Interview;Brian Wilson

1st May 1998 at 01:00
The newspapers have been unfriendly to Brian Wilson. He spoke to Neil Munro about his eventful first year as Education Minister

It would hardly be surprising if Brian Wilson did not regard his first year as Education Minister with a mixture of frustration and fulfilment.

The famous calculation that education authorities have been swamped by circulars from the Scottish Office - 64 by early March, according to one estimate - hardly suggests masterly inactivity. Yet Mr Wilson has been bedevilled by accusations that he has been doing very little.

It is, of course, a charge-sheet dominated by headlines demanding the same "tough" approach as David Blunkett in England.

The prosecution accuses Mr Wilson of eschewing compulsory appraisal, abandoning compulsory testing in early secondary, boycotting rhetoric about "bad" teachers and refusing to "name and shame" schools.

But when Mr Wilson backs the Prime Minister's "hard choices" and defends student tuition fees he is pilloried equally.

There is a certain irony in a journalist by trade being hoist on unsympathetic headlines. "I've had not so much an unfair press as a stupid press," Mr Wilson told The TESS in typically combative style. "Every issue has been twisted to become a minor sensation."

The current obsession pressing ministers to "hit the ground running" certainly puts a premium on high profile activity, not long term achievement. Mr Wilson's style earned him an early tribute from Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, who said Scottish Office ministers had "hit the ground thinking." This inevitably cast Mr Wilson as "the unions' poodle".

Nobody at the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association conference last week would have characterised the relationship that way. Nor would anybody who has followed union attacks over such issues as funding, Higher Still and target-setting.

Much of New Labour's claim to be the friend of education stems from new money - pound;24 million for early intervention, pound;227 million from the Government's first two budgets, pound;9 million more for pre-schooling, pound;14 million for reducing class sizes from axeing the assisted places scheme, and up to pound;25 million for training teachers in using information technology. There have also been a bewildering array of promissory notes, ranging from pound;140,000 for special needs computing equipment to pound;10,000 for producing children's story tapes in Gaelic.

Mr Wilson's problem is that the Treasury largesse has yet to trickle down to the chalkface. The cash is only now reaching council coffers, and the new funds are operating in parallel with Treasury-driven council cuts.

It is not too surprising therefore that Iain Stewart, a teacher at Liberton High in Edinburgh and an East Lothian Labour councillor, says that the classroom has yet to feel the impact of New Labour.

Scottish Office ministers are therefore in an odd kind of education limbo. They can reasonably claim to have barely stood still and they can blame their predecessors. But the substance has yet to fulfill the rhetoric of "education, education, education".

The contrast with Mr Wilson's other main brief, industry, could not be greater. Bad economic news can be laid at the doors of mysterious speculators and distant boardrooms. Educational problems however, are the Minister's own fault.

His early experience of education certainly brought its problems as one weakness after another was exposed. Boys perform badly, modern languages turn pupils off and there are failures in English, maths, science, S1 and S2.

Mr Wilson says he did not enter the job with any "rosy-eyed view that everything in Scottish education was perfect. And I was certainly well aware there were major funding needs. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the revelation about the state of modern languages."

But he is not for rushing to judgement. He believes there is a framework in place, bolstered by the 5-14 and Higher Still programmes which can address many of these weaknesses. "The priority is to make it work rather than coming up with instant wheezes which get an easy headline," he says.

The minister sets particular store by the eventual results of his early intervention and pre-school strategies. "Taken together, they are among the major educational advances since the war and amount to a real transformation in the life chances of young people."

Mr Wilson admits that schools cannot do it all. He assured Catholic heads at their conference last week that the effects of wider social conditions on schools would not be ignored. But the first attempt at this, using free meals to set targets, is running into accusations of unfairness to particular schools.

Mr Wilson says he is open to persuasion, but stresses that no acceptable alternatives were on offer.

Despite this rather full agenda, Mr Wilson says he made "an immediate decision not to go for frenetic activity and easy headlines.

"It was clear there were problems in England and that comparisons would be made but the Government's objectives for high standards in education are the same on both sides of the border. The routes are bound to be different and I continue to believe there is more to be gained by building on the strengths of the Scottish system and working together.

"My perception was and is that teachers need a respite from upheaval, and initiating a war of attrition would be deeply counter-productive and unfair."

Whether teachers return the compliment remains to be seen. There is evidence that Mr Wilson faces a challenge in convincing the unions, at least, that his policies on Higher Still and target-setting are either productive or fair.

New Labour's policies may have changed priorities backed by targeted funding. But the stamp of the HMI is ever present, and that is enough to render them suspect to many teachers.

Mr Wilson has now embarked on a tour of school staff. "It's intended to be a two-way process. I am acutely aware that the more filters we use to communicate, the more problematic the process is."

An enduring legacy of the last Government has been the assumption that if you are not "taking on" professions such as teaching, you must be in bed with them. The pressure is therefore on Mr Wilson to be seen to be "doing something". It is perhaps no coincidence that the body which oversees educational standards is known as his "action group".

Ironically, as one of Labour's leading anti-devolutionists in the 1970s, he could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief when responsibility for education passes to the Scottish Parliament.


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