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The watchdogs get down to work;Interview;Mary Mulligan

Neil Munro talks to Holyrood's new education chief

WATCHDOG or lapdog? The Scottish Parliament's education committee will have to carve out a robust reputation for itself as it takes on the Herculean task of scrutinising Government policy while pursuing its own lines of inquiry.

Mary Mulligan, chair of the committee and Labour MSP for Linlithgow, is at the age of 39 little known outside the world of local Edinburgh politics, and she does not appear particularly interested in making a national name for herself. But she is determined to plough her own furrow.

"The committee is free to say what it thinks and what it wants," she says firmly. "We are not the Executive and the nice thing about being a new committee is that there are no constraints on our work.

"But we have no intention of being critical just because we are not the Executive. If, however, we believe the Executive is on the wrong track, our job is to say so. Otherwise there is no point in us being there."

The committee's three Nationalist members and the one Tory will no doubt tackle perceived Government shortcomings with relish, but Mrs Mulligan's four Labour colleagues and the two Liberal Democrats may fear outspokenness against the Lab-Lib coalition will lead to their collars being felt.

Mrs Mulligan says none the less that she is determined to get across the message that "we are distinct from the Executive and if people have a problem they can come to us". The floodgates may already be opening.

Colleagues who worked with her in Edinburgh, where she chaired the housing committee of the former district council and its successor, believe she is typecast for her new job.

She is not regarded as new Labour and, according to one fellow councillor of the time, she was perfectly happy asking awkward questions which exposed inconsistencies and hypocrisy on her own side as well as the inadequacies of her opponents.

"She used to wipe the floor with people in here," as another put it. "If people were looking for someone with an independence of mind who could bring integrity to the committee system, they couldn't have made a better choice."

More modestly, Mrs Mulligan acknowledges she is not an expert in educational issues and is "open to persuasion" on any concerns which people bring to her. As Linlithgow MSP, her local headteachers and West Lothian education authority will be an immediate sounding board.

She is particularly conscious that the committee must establish its standing and credibility by making proposals which are informed and can command support in Parliament - not least because Labour has a majority neither in the committee nor in the chamber. Great store will therefore be set on bringing in outside experts to inform the committee's judgments.

Mrs Mulligan's first task will be to steer through the consultation and scrutiny on the Education Bill, which will kick off in earnest next month. So far she has no misgivings on any major aspect of the planned legislation, believing that its major purpose is to consolidate and improve.

She is dismissive of those critics who believe it is difficult to shine a light between current policies and those of the Conservatives. "We want to work with education and teachers to deliver the best service possible, and we are not going to introduce changes just because they are the latest fad or fashion.

"We are about raising standards, for which we have to set targets and which is at the heart of the new Bill, and I don't believe anyone is disagreeing with that."

Scottish Executive ministers, however, sometimes appear to strike an uncertain note, promising legislative changes and stability in the same breath. At the same time fears have been expressed that MSPs, casting around for things to do, would almost inevitably begin "interfering" with education.

Mrs Mulligan promised the Parliament would not meddle. "We will not do things for the sake of being seen to do something. The SNP's spokesperson said when the Bill was published that it was boring. Well, that has to be seen in the context of the huge amount of changes that have already happened and are happening, including the demands we make of teachers' workload and working practices. We will resist the temptation to go for action all the time."

She is determined to preserve the right of fellow members to set their own agenda. Pressure of business is already looming, however, and the committee may be forced to meet weekly rather than fortnightly as planned, including roadshows across Scotland.

Although Mrs Mulligan will no doubt remain a Labour (if not new Labour) loyalist, she does have a general concern that "by putting emphasis on the academic side of education we don't lose sight of the importance of young people becoming involved in things like sport and the arts which are essential for a well-rounded education".

That is a reminder that the committee - which has just 11 members - has two other responsibilities, culture and sport.

Holyrood's education chief may have two hidden strengths. She is a consumer of the system with three children, two of primary age and the third starting this week in the "problem" S2 stage. All attend local schools.

And as a Liverpudlian who graduated in economics from Manchester University, she will perhaps be able to guard against starry-eyed notions about the innate superiority of Scottish education.

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