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The new Education Minister for Scotland: a job description

May 7, 2016

Any time now, we may know the new Cabinet.  Although in law, ministerial appointments in Scotland have to be approved by the Scottish Parliament, this is a difference from Westminster which, like the absence of an official opposition, is likely to be brushed aside by commentators as a technicality.  They will have a point. Ministerial announcements are political moments. Revelation of the new team will be Sturgeon’s first major act as leader of a minority administration and its presentation will be a significant piece of political theatre.

Centre stage will be the appointment of the new Cabinet Secretary for Education (and other stuff – the chance may be taken to reorganise what’s bundled with what). I shall brutally assume it will be someone new, given the general pasting received by Angela Constance in the press. My observations on her period in office are not all negative: under her tenure, the hyperbole and misdirection which characterised government press notices on higher education  and student funding prior to her arrival melted away, and grants began to creep back up, however slowly. There were signs that, far more than her predecessor, she appreciated that there was much more to do here than smooth the path for the more photogenic end of the school leaving population. It is hard to know what personal impact she had on policy, however, because the First Minister so routinely held smash and grab raids on any major portfolio announcements.

Whoever does the job next will need to be more trusted to take the lead.  Education may be the policy Sturgeon has emphasised as most central to her new administration, but she will be up to her knees in managing a minority administration, and the agenda laid out for schools and the rest is simply too big, complex and risky to be amenable to bouts of occasional remote management. It’s also often vague, as witnessed by reaction to the manifesto commitment on some sort of regionalisation of schools reported here, meaning that it will need a creative mind to work out how, especially in the new political context, the words should be interpreted.

The incoming briefing will  need to cover, among other things:

  • school funding, management and governance, not least what it is that the government is trying to achieve.
  • the introduction of standardised testing (controversial for some, but supported by Labour and Conservatives, so no political excuses can be made for not proceeding).
  • a commitment to a review of student funding to make it “fairer”, particularly between FE and HE  – but with no new money behind it (other parties have also highlighted concerns about student funding – but they all proposed ways to raise cash to address this).
  • appointing a new Commissioner for Widening Access and more generally taking forward the Access Commission report (again, cross- party support exists). It’s worth making the point – because no-one really has – that the access targets set by the Commission are what gets called brave, not to say heroic.
  • the inquiry into historic child abuse, about which victims’ groups have become increasingly critical.
  • implementing the Named Person legislation probably also falls to this portfolio still – there’s a court judgement coming there which has potential to make things either much easier or much harder.

Bubbling away also are workload and stress issues in secondary schools, a regular drip of test and exam results from existing systems (first up, numeracy statistics due on 31 May), the chance of some sort of problem with the operation of the exam system (a known unknown, on past form), the Edinburgh schools issue (not technically the SG’s headache, but impossible to completely ignore) and much more.  The government has so far avoided political pain from the growing failure rate of Scottish applicants for a free university place here, as the system fails to grow in line with rising demand: but that issue is now in opposition sights, and it is not clear what answer the new administration can offer with funding for universities declining, beyond living with this or extra places achieved by diluting funding per student. Only a little breathing space is offered by a temporary dip in the age 18 population.

Whoever gets the Cabinet Secretary post has to be trusted to get on all with all this while knowing when and when not to bother a busy First Minister.  They will ideally be capable of dealing with opposition parties intelligently, tactfully and tactically. The legacy of the brutalist politics of the last 5 years of majority government will need to be overcome: habits of co-operative working and mutual respect have not been much cultivated on the government benches since 2011. The new Minister  will need to have some sort of relationship with local government, which, facing large cuts imposed (again) brutally earlier this year, starts from a position of distrust and very possibly also suspicion about intentions to strip out their schools function. They will be doing all this against a budget which is declining.

The new incumbent will also face – I assume – more effective parliamentary scrutiny. The Education Committee of the past few years has been a pretty supine affair, often failing to hold Minister to account and aided by having among its members the Minister’s parliamentary aide. One did not get the impression that lines of questioning to government always came as a great surprise and one member could always be relied on to ask a version of “why are you so wonderful?”. If the Committee is offered the minister’s aide as a colleague again, I’d suggest it insists at minimum on placing that relationship explicitly on the record, whenever government policy or performance is the topic of discussion. The Westminster Ministerial code (but not the Scottish one) quoted here says:

Parliamentary Private Secretaries should not make statements in the House or put Questions on matters affecting the department with which they are connected. They are not precluded from serving on Select Committees, but they should withdraw from any involvement with inquiries into their appointing Minister’s department, and they should avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the Government. They should also exercise discretion in any speeches or broadcasts outside the House.

The last Committee’s Convenor was a party member (no longer in Parliament –  he was a list member who was not returned) and it was rare for sessions to be typified by the relentless pursuit of issues which might be uncomfortable for the government, although towards the end there were a few exceptions to this. If the Opposition parties do not hold out for the Convenorship of the Education Committee, they will have fallen at an early hurdle.

Who then might be the next Cabinet Secretary?  It will need to be someone with considerable political and policy skills, good judgement, experienced in parliament and in government. The pool won’t be large, simply because the Scottish Parliament and the ministerial team is much smaller than at Westminster. Both junior ministers are back and have avoided much bad press: whether they are regarded as heavyweight enough would be a question. A sideways move from another brief is clearly possible: one commentator at least has speculated about John Swinney (his relationship with local government was rock bottom by the end of the last parliament, which might or might not be relevant).

It seems unlikely to be one of the new faces. Otherwise, we might be looking at Jeanne Freeman (who must at least be in with a good chance of a junior post somewhere in government).  Her CV has given her – uniquely, I’d guess – almost every angle on government:  senior third sector and quango roles, a period as Jack McConnell’s  senior special adviser (during which time – relevant here – she was at the forefront of an ultimately unsuccessful battle to remove criminal justice social work from local authorities and tie it in with the prison service, which ended in the compromise of a new regional co-ordinating tier, shortly to be abolished after ten years in operation) and, missing from the Wikipedia entry here, a period immediately after devolution in 1999 as a senior civil servant, during which she was based in the Education Department, where she led on putting the McCrone deal into place. The last of these adds education to experience in justice and health. In a government not always all that obviously interested in the nuts and bolts end of government, she arrives clutching a bag of spanners. If she ends up in the education team, it shouldn’t be a great surprise – but if as Cabinet Secretary, it will be more of one.

One further appointment to watch will be the special adviser.  Kate Higgins, the previous incumbent, came from a third sector children’s charity background (see here). Given the new centrality of schools policy, it might be expected that some sort of advisory ballast is needed from there, either instead of or as well.

The First Minister will presumably stay close to the education brief. But education policy will also need the full-time attention of someone with a considerable set of political and intellectual skills – not simply to implement the manifesto, but even more crucially, to work out what that manifesto actually means, in the new political context. Who gets that job will be one of the most important decisions of the next few days.



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