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Why you should trust the Scottish Lib Dems

In the second of our pre-election interviews with parties' education spokespeople, Henry Hepburn meets the Scottish Liberal Democrats' Margaret Smith

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In the second of our pre-election interviews with parties' education spokespeople, Henry Hepburn meets the Scottish Liberal Democrats' Margaret Smith

How difficult is it proving to persuade voters of the Scottish Liberal Democrats' commitment to free university education - and of your integrity on all issues - given the actions of party colleagues at Westminster?

It is an issue. We just have to keep telling people we're the Scottish Liberal Democrats, standing on our record in the Scottish Parliament. We scrapped Labour's tuition fees in Scotland; down south, Labour actually increased the fees. We're absolutely passionate about this issue. I've got two kids just through university, two kids at university; I'm personally very committed.

Your manifesto states that schools should be able to meet the needs of local communities `without central interference'. How far would you go?

I'm certainly not suggesting an opt-out from local authorities' control. That's been tried before in Scotland and it didn't work; I don't think there's an appetite for it. There is a fundamental role for local authorities as a safety net, in areas such as making resources available for additional support for learning.

You want to give more power to heads. Does that include hiring and firing?

We're not prescriptive about this - it's something that could be looked at within the McCormac review - but we do think headteachers should be allowed to build the team they believe they need.

The manifesto talks about `re-energising' the McCrone agreement on teachers' working conditions. What are your thoughts on the McCormac review?

In the past 10 years we've built good partnership working between Government, Cosla and the teaching profession. It's particularly sad that the recent tone and ideas around pay and conditions negotiations, from some councils, have been at variance with that. We think the McCormac review is perfectly acceptable, but we don't accept the attitude of some, which has not been about building on what's gone before but about cost- cutting. Some of the comments by leaders of Glasgow City Council before negotiations even started were quite regrettable. You're more likely to get a sustainable agreement if you negotiate in good faith, and have an attitude that we'll discuss what's on the table and try to reach agreement.

You would accelerate the removal of failing teachers, and bring about a `zero-tolerance approach on poor teaching'. How urgent is it to put this in place?

While we accept there is a very small number of failing teachers, if you look at the number who lose their registration, I don't think anyone believes the problem is as tiny as that. Every teacher knows there are people in their school who really are not doing their job properly.

You want to encourage 14-year-olds to sign up for college courses. Isn't there a danger of pigeon-holing pupils too early as non-academic?

I think we've been in danger telling the non-academic they have to be academic. The idea that all kids have to take the same route, and get as many qualifications as they can, is the wrong one. What we're proposing is that they would still be retained in the education system, but would be doing things that would keep them engaged.

Moving away from your manifesto, how would you make sure there are jobs for probationers and out-of-work teachers?

We have to get the right workforce planning in place - I don't think any government has cracked that yet. There has to be greater realism among individuals looking for jobs, about what the options are and what is on offer; there has to be realism on the part of institutions delivering initial teacher education about what their role is, and how many people they take on.

Supply teachers feel they have come off badly in recent negotiations about pay and conditions. What support would you offer?

I'm not going to get heavily involved in the detail of ongoing negotiations. I'd feel a lot happier if we had a more permanent teaching workforce and weren't having to rely so much on supply teachers. I'm sure supply teachers would prefer that, too.

Can you promise that the freeze on the chartered teacher programme won't become a permanent end?

I wouldn't want to pre-empt the McCormac review, but I think it's probably one element of McCrone that people ended up having a real sense of disappointment about; there was a feeling that more people would go down that route. I've not really spoken to anybody in the profession who's happy that we've got it right. The principle that people don't have to go into a managerial position to progress is perfectly reasonable, but I do think we'll have to have another look at how we do that.

Which single proposal by the Scottish Liberal Democrats would make the biggest difference to education in Scotland?

Our commitment to substantial extra resources for early intervention.


- free higher education: no tuition fees or graduate contributions;

- college courses opened up to 14-year-olds;

- pound;250 million early intervention fund;

- more power for headteachers over recruitment and discipline;

- encourage schools to work on specialisms that fit local circumstances, by giving them greater control over their own school development plans;

- "off-site education" for persistently disruptive children;

- "proper career structures" for technicians, classroom assistants, special needs staff and nursery nurses;

- more students to complete degrees in three years, rather than four.

Original headline: `Every teacher knows there are people in their school who are not doing their job properly'

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