A woman of notable importance

Was I alone in expecting Wendy Alexander to be offered her boss's old job as Education Minister when Jack McConnell was elevated to First Minister?

She initially demonstrated that she was a sharp customer during her stint as Minister for Communities. The social inclusion agenda brought her into the ambit of educators, but allowed her to remain at a safe distance from the hot potato of tuition fees and the cataclysm of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Mr McConnell's distinguished one-year tenure of the schools' portfolio was characterised by action on reconstituting the exams body and striking a deal on teachers' pay, at a point when any hope of a settlement was ebbing rapidly. He also grasped the nettle of pupils' behaviour by setting up the discipline task force, leading to the publication of the Better Behaviour - Better Learning report.

Cathy Jamieson seemed an odd choice for his replacement. There was speculation that her background in local authority social work heralded a more integrated approach to services for young people. However, she has remained resoundingly quiet, apart from launching the great debate on Scottish education. The casual onlooker could be forgiven for thinking this debate had been raging for 40 years already: comprehensive or selective schools, opting out or local authority control, certification for some or all, setting or mixed ability classes.

It seemed odder still that Nicol Stephen, deputy minister for education, would have day-to-day responsibility for schools. This was like a health minister devolving responsibility for hospitals or a finance minister putting a colleague in charge of money.

Mr Stephen's appointment was part of the price for coalition with the Liberal Democrats. He is an able and eloquent chap, but to give him the top education job would have been an unpalatable pill for Labour to swallow.

His party boss, Jim Wallace, the Justice Minister, could equally be a credible incumbent of the education ministry, if his political colour were not an insurmountable obstacle.

Iain Gray has been appointed Minister for Enterprise, Transport and Lifelong Learning since Ms Alexander's resignation. He is a former physics teacher. If learning is lifelong, why does this ministry exclude schools? This artificial distinction proved fatal, when the SQA crisis broke and nobody seemed sure whether Henry McLeish as the former Lifelong Learning Minister or Sam Galbraith as the Education Minister should carry the can. The quango received its funding from the lifelong learning budget, but Mr Galbraith's schools ministry was left to resolve the mayhem.

A single ministry, uncluttered by transport, economics and inward investment, would convey an unequivocal message about the paramount importance of education to the nation's future.

Waiting in the wings is the Scottish National Party, still far from challenging Labour's supremacy. Its spokesman on educational matters, Mike Russell, combines an incisive appreciation of the key policy areas, with the eloquence and energy to convey his party's views to the electorate. He recently impressed an audience of secondary heads with detailed knowledge of the benefits and shortcomings of devolved management and an awareness of the attractions of e-learning, particularly in rural areas.

The SNP has now published its policy paper on education, which does not say much that is new. However, the commitment to "encouragement of diversity based on common high standards within a unified but devolved state system" neatly synthesises the aspirations of many teachers.

Wendy has wandered, but Jack cannot afford to lose ministerial colleagues of her calibre. She has demonstrated intelligence and energy as an able industry minister. The education portfolio requires vision, courage and a thick skin. A return to the Executive in this capacity could be a significant step on the political escalator, if she aspires to be Alexander the Great.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High, Edinburgh

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