Friday, 4 July 2008

Trench warfare in education battle

AN end-of-term report is due on my experience of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee. It was a most confrontational experience.

Trench warfare was the order of each day, once a week during term time. The committee comprises, three SNP, three Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory; Labour convener, Karen Whitefield; SNP vice convener, me. From the prolonged battle over the details of abolishing the Graduate Endowment we knew it would be hard.

It was rejected by the casting vote of the Labour convener but passed by Parliament with SNP, Lib Dem and Green support. This began the route to free education for Scots students and was the first step towards reducing student debt as pledged by the SNP Government.

The bulk of the session was devoted to scrutiny of an EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland) petition for maximum class sizes of 20. Indeed we spent more hours on this than on evidence for the Creative Scotland Bill despite the straightforward enabling nature of this measure.

The hostility of Unionist parties to the reduction of class sizes in P1 to P3 that is central to SNP thinking led us into tortuous and long-winded debate. From my experience few committees allow such persistent supplementary questioning without time limit. Whether it amounts to more than a hill of beans remains to be seen. Some 80,000 signed the EIS petition; teachers and academics say smaller classes are best. So the SNP has set to deliver year-on-year targets for local government to meet their Concordat obligations. Highland already has 100 of the 180 primary schools complying. So with increased capital and cohorts of teachers in training significant progress across the country is to be expected by 2011.

The Creative Scotland Bill received the grudging endorsement of the principle of a single national cultural body, to be called "Creative Scotland". However the committee expressed significant concerns as to whether the Bill as drafted will meet its objectives. In an extended dogfight, critical and nit-picking amendment after amendment was forced through, five to three. But on the floor of the Chamber the third, and final, stage was voted through unanimously only to be negated by a Lib Dem move to veto the financial resolution. This lost so the Bill fell. The culture minister Linda Fabiani has assured MSPs and the creative industries and artists that this will be rectified in the autumn. Meanwhile Creative Scotland continues to transform from the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen. So gesture politics from the Unionist parties has slowed progress which the creative community should never forget.

Various personnel moves among SNP committee members have now been agreed. The moves to accommodate a member back from maternity leave, another going off and Brian Adam our chief whip to be freed up for management duties on a Wednesday morning have led to a reshuffle. I will take Brian's place as vice-convener of economy, energy and tourism while Kenny Gibson [no relation] moves from local government and communities to education lifelong learning and culture committee. My move comes at an exciting time when an energy enquiry is on the stocks. I will of course continue to serve on the transport, infrastructure and climate change committee which meets on Tuesday afternoons.


In a time when young people throughout the country seem to be categorised as self-obsessed, and caring more about the latest celebrity antics than the world around them, it is heartening to read the findings of NCH Scotland report called Hear our voice.

The report asked 500 disadvantaged children and young people in Scotland (including the Highlands) what their top priorities are for public policy in Scotland. The top three priorities came out as reducing poverty, tackling homelessness and providing better access to leisure and recreational opportunities.

These priorities follow a social justice agenda which chimes with that of the Scottish Government. It shows why Governments, MSPs and other decision-makers must not stop listening to the younger generation. In recent visits to secondary schools I have been impressed by the grasp that students have on important issues such as climate change and world affairs. We ignore the future at our peril and I would say we ignore the future of our young people's wishes to our detriment.


This year's Festival of Politics takes place in our Parliament during the Edinburgh Festival. The star turn will undoubtedly be Aberdeen-born singer Annie Lennox, who has sold 80 million records in an award-strewn career. Today she campaigns for women who are victims of HIV in southern Africa. In a newspaper interview last week she said she wanted to see a modern, forward-thinking and environmentally-friendly Scotland.

She continued, "In that way, if Scotland was to be independent, and it had that kind of vision, I would back it completely."

Next year sees the year of Scottish homecoming which will celebrate Scotland's great contribution to the world. It will also encourage people of Scots descent around the world – estimates range from 28 to 40 million people – to visit.

No comments: