Tories stand up for schools

The Scottish Conservatives, condemned during their long period in office for destroying staffroom morale by successive cuts, are now backing higher salaries for teachers and the employment of more front-line staff.

Restoring teacher morale will be at the top of the party's agenda for the Holyrood elections, Brian Monteith, the Tories' latest education spokesman, has pledged.

Mr Monteith, an Edinburgh marketing consultant and Scottish parliament candidate in Stirling, said: "What we have woken up to is that there is a real problem with teacher morale. If teachers go into the classroom thoroughly disillusioned, then they will give a bad performance which will affect pupils' learning.

"In the party, there is a growing feeling that part of restoring this morale may have to be more money for teachers' salaries and for more teachers to be employed."

The Scottish Tories were "beginning to shift", although they recognised the costs involved.

In his first week in charge, Mr Monteith has announced a radical shake-up in policy. The emphasis on tinkering with alternative structures, such as school boards and self-governing schools, is being ditched. There will be no way back either for the assisted places scheme that subsidised places for less well off pupils at independent schools.

Mr Monteith, in the past known as the Blue Trot, is that rare Tory product: state school educated and a believer in the state system. His two children go the local school and his wife is a school board member.

The party's focus will be on the state system and making it work better. He readily admits Helen Liddell, Labour's Education Minister, has stolen many of the Tory policies for cranking up standards and weeding out bad teachers.

"The challenge is to come up with policies in the state sector that restore the credibility of the party and we need to restore the faith among Conservative teachers who for so long have had to keep quiet. We have to offer distinct policies that are attractive to the teaching profession and consumers," Mr Monteith said.

"I think most parents are genuinely happy with their schools and teachers, but that is not to say things cannot be improved."

More independence for headteachers and more budgetary control at school level are two possible areas for investigation.

Unlike past Tory regimes, Mr Monteith will not be looking over his shoulder to London for the party line and confirms there will be no Anglicisation of policy, a charge that clung to Michael Forsyth's agenda during his tenure at the Scottish Office.

For the past seven years, Mr Monteith has worked on marketing the General Teaching Council and only recently completed an 18-month contract as a public relations consultant. He would like it to have a stronger role in post-probationary training and in rooting out incompetent teachers.

"If anyone thinks I am going to be a GTC poodle, they would be completely wrong", he states.

In higher education, he maintains policy has come round to his long-held views. In 1980, the Federation of Conservative Students published a pamphlet on student loans, a policy that was "ridiculed and derided".

He attacks any SNP commitment to student grants as "not in the real world".

Mr Monteith, 40, is a long-time ally of Michael Forsyth and is hoping to inherit his Stirling seat, albeit in Holyrood, not Westminster. He worked for the former Scottish Secretary in his London PR company and in Edinburgh and now appears able to pick winning horses. He was Scottish campaign manager for Tory leader William Hague and prime backer for David McLetchie, the party's new Scottish leader.

He actively sought his new brief and is hoping to make the same impact he has done in the other great love of his life: Hibernian Football Club. As orchestrator of the high-profile Hands on Hibs campaign, he is pressing Sir Tom Farmer, the club's millionaire owner, to invest substantial sums. Many punters will find it surprising the champion of the Hibs' dispossessed is a true blue. Pulling back Hibs from the abyss, however, may be the easier task.

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