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Testing times

RARELY has a Minister of Education faced a new year in which the immediacy and inavoidability of the challenges were so clear. Fortunately, Jack McConnell has already shown the confidence to make clear-cut decisions, as in his carve-up of the Inspectorate. But the reputation of the Executive, and of the Education Minister in particular, depends on the smooth running of this year's SCE exams. Gauging the extent of intervention with the Scottish Qualifications Authority will be crucial if alarm bells sound.

Mr McConnell, of course, faces another test: the post-McCrone package was bound to bounce on to his desk, with teachers and employers poised to shuffle off responsibility if failure can be put down to ministerial inability to fund a deal. Within a short time we will know how far Mr McConnell has been able to bring to bear his expertise as a former Finance Minister and his clout as the number two inthe coalition majority.

Previous Education Ministers have set their own agenda, perhaps a piece of legislation or the underwriting of projects dear to administrators and inspectors. Wendy Alexander in the lifelong learning part of her remit enjoys that kind of freedom, denied Mr McConnell this year. She will strive (as her new year resolution on page 14 puts it) to end the situation where fewer than one in 10 school-leavers entering university are from a semi-skilled or unskilled household. Her aim is worthy. If she fell short she will not be politically exposed.

It should be a resolution for the whole Executive not to attempt to do everything itself. Far better to lay down broad criteria and let others - local authorities, schools, colleges and universities - get on with implementing policy as best fits their circumstances. Devolution is a step-by-step process with a long way to go.

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