Brian Monteith: A way for SNP to wrong-foot Labour

Parents and pupils are battling to save St Joseph's. Picture: Jamie Forbes

Parents and pupils are battling to save St Joseph's. Picture: Jamie Forbes

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NICOLA Sturgeon loves to wrong-foot opponents, and a planned primary school closure gives her that chance, says Brian Monteith.

A week rarely passes when our First Minister does not take some action or make some utterance that is carefully calculated to wrong-foot the Labour Party and make it look right-wing. The first such manoeuvre was a demand that the renewal of Trident be abandoned as the price of SNP support for Labour in the event of a hung parliament. Since then, we have also had a speech in London bemoaning Labour’s alleged austere economic policies, as if trying to eradicate the deficit is a heinous crime. Nicola Sturgeon’s demand that £180 billion more of public spending be committed is worthy of the Greek finance minister, not least because, like Greece relies on the Germans, so Sturgeon’s economic pump-priming would rely primarily on the English.

The reason for all this shadow boxing is that Nicola Sturgeon is already fighting next year’s Holyrood elections

There was a time when Scots were thought to be prudent and careful with their money, but the SNP is clearly set on eradicating that perception and creating greater division between us and English people whose patience for our spendthrift ways may one day snap. It is no coincidence that Ukip is openly suggesting the end to the Barnett formula that has until now delivered about 20 per cent greater spending per head. Such an outcome would make the current austerity look like a Treasury charm offensive.

The reason for all this shadow boxing is that Nicola Sturgeon is already fighting next year’s Holyrood elections. It is in the First Minister’s strategic interest to help assist a Conservative victory but, in the event of a Labour one, be positioned for the next year as a critic of Ed Miliband from a position on the left.

There is another issue coming to the fore where she could again wrong-foot Labour, and that is the future governance of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Primary in East Dunbartonshire. The small school is threatened with closure by the local council, but the parents wish to turn it into a community-managed school, a policy that hitherto has been anathema to Scotland’s own educational “blob” of teaching unions, councils and other producer groups with a vested interest in resisting change.

A formidable coalition of such groups, along with Labour and SNP education ministers, has ensured until now that such impudence as a school becoming self-governing would go nowhere. Indeed, so beyond the pale is the idea of parent management that one of the first acts of the Scottish Parliament was to pass the Education Act of 2000 that took away the self-governing status of St Mary’s Episcopal Primary School in Dunblane. That it was in the heart of Michael Forsyth’s former Stirling constituency and had been given self-governing status by those fiendishly uncaring Tories when threatened with closure by a Labour-run council gave Sam Galbraith’s legislation the look of political vengeance.

I remember that period well, as I was the Conservative education spokesman and Nicola Sturgeon held the same brief for the SNP. We sat on the education committee that considered Galbraith’s bill and met with the parents, pupils, teachers and governors of the school to hear their case. Then, as like now, Nicola Sturgeon made friendly and not unsympathetic noises about her willingness to approach the school’s plight with an open mind, but I never doubted for a minute that she would – when a vote was taken – come down on the side of the blob. And so it came to pass. I was the only committee member to dissent from approving the clauses in the bill that robbed St Mary’s of its independence, a status that one could be forgiven for thinking a Nationalist might agree to.

Much water has passed under the bridge since then, but thus far the prospect for Scottish schools being able to achieve independence from local authority direction has been no more than a dream held by parents hoping to defend their children’s schools from closure. Hopes were raised when Mike Russell became education secretary and he made mood music about loosening Scotland’s educational uniformity – only for those dreams to be dashed on the sharp rocks of our educational establishment.

Meanwhile, over the past dozen years in Scandinavia, a part of the world Nationalists enjoy making comparisons with, greater freedoms were being delivered to parents, allowing them to establish local, state-funded, community schools, where a proven demand could be demonstrated. These schools were not only successful but, by providing competition with existing schools, helped to raise the standards for everyone. To retain pupils, the older schools had to up their game and so the benefits were spread. It is this model that inspired Michael Gove’s Free Schools and has seen new English schools delivering a kaleidoscope of educational approaches, more often than not successfully. Now Nicola Sturgeon is being confronted with another St Mary’s-like opportunity and, like then, she is offering to hear the parents’ case.

The singular difference is that she is First Minister and owes no allegiance to a superior or even the blob – she can create a new education policy by supporting true community management of a much-loved school. At a stroke, she would wrong-foot Labour, a party built on maintaining vested interests in the public sector ahead of the concerns of parents, patients and local taxpayers who feel they receive poor value for money and have little say in the services they receive.

For the First Minister to support self-governance now would be a welcome break with the past and show her to possess an open mind as yet never revealed to the Scottish public. It would cause panic at the heart of the Labour Party and send a supportive message to a Roman Catholic community that Labour has so often taken for granted. She could give hope to many other small schools that provide an excellent service but do not fit into a local authority’s plans. What an opportunity, what a chance for educational variety and freedom from the educational blob – can the First Minister deliver independence when she has the authority to do so?

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