Brian Monteith: Conservative support for some SNP policies is nothing new

First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon shakes hands with Tory leader Ruth Davidson following a television debate. Picture: Getty Images
First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon shakes hands with Tory leader Ruth Davidson following a television debate. Picture: Getty Images
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EDUCATION proposals may well meet with Tory approval, and it won’t be the first time for the two parties, says Brian Monteith

Normal service has been resumed.

No longer can any one party in the Scottish Parliament, not even the Scottish Government, say with certainty that one of its policies will become law unless it talks sweetly to at least one other party so as to gain the necessary votes to obtain majority support.

For the last five years the SNP, with its overall majority, had its way more or less unencumbered. Not any more, and the evidence of that is best explained by the unusual possibility of education reforms being supported by Conservatives while the Labour Party continues to stand on the sidelines representing the interests of producers rather than those of pupils and parents.

Having been reconfirmed in her role as the shadow education spokesman for the Tories, Liz Smith has wasted no time in announcing that Conservatives will support the SNP Government if it seeks to decentralise power towards schools.

Now before SNP supporters of an ideological bent who consider all things Tory anti-Scottish, if not anti the human race, become hot under the collar, they need to sit down and consider these points: Nationalists should remember that dealing with Tories does not mean a plague of locusts, pustulent boils and open sores will descend on the party, the government or its politicians.

We have been here before. When the SNP Government was last a minority administration between 2007-11 it relied regularly upon the support of Conservatives to have various proposals and budgets passed. The party did not suffer for this but went on to claim its famous overall majority in the 2011 election. Clearly it is possible to use and abuse the Tories at the same time.

If this means the Conservatives get something they believe to be a good outcome it does not necessarily mean it must be evil in disguise. After all, are Nicola Sturgeon and her disciples not campaigning for the UK to remain in the European Union, a view held not just by Ruth Davidson but Lucifer himself, the Prime Minister David Cameron? (Of course, they could both be wrong!)

The next point to recall is that once a policy is championed and delivered by the party of government it becomes that party’s policy. Ask any member of the public who was responsible for putting more bobbies on the beat in the last six or more years and the answer given (if anyone can answer at all) will be the SNP Government. It was the SNP Government that proposed it, budgeted for it and effected it. That Baroness Goldie of Bishopton cajoled them along and supported it at crucial moments has been lost in the mists of time. The same will happen with education reforms.

So when the SNP says it will introduce educational regions and school management clusters there is the very strong likelihood that if these are agreeable to the Scottish Conservatives not only can the SNP Government expect the necessary legislation to be passed, it will be able to take the credit for a policy that is in fact the norm throughout the developed world.

It may yet be the case that the SNP policies, once described in detail, do not attract Conservative support. In the typical vagueness that has become the modus operandi for SNP politicians, it is hard to pin down what exactly is meant by “educational regions” and “school clusters”.

For instance, it could be possible to nationalise Scottish education under the direct authority of the education department of the government and then devolve the management of budgets and curriculum to educational regions of schools, or schools themselves – as was done a generation ago in New Zealand. That would clearly be a swing towards local decentralised community control. For those worried about council involvement there could still be places for councillors on management boards.

Alternatively it could be possible to bring together some council areas and create a mirror of the old regional councils that were abolished more than 20 years ago and call these regional management groups, but then devolve some powers to school clusters. The key would be the extent to which existing councils would still be able to direct the delivery of education.

Readers will quickly recognise that solitary words and phrases from SNP politicians are not enough; we need more detail to have any idea of what their genuine intentions are.

There is then the question of what is meant by “school clusters”. Firstly, these are not new, they were used in the past to deliver cultural provision by the then culture minister, Mike Watson, way back in those antediluvian days of 2002 before the SNP swept all before them. Secondly, are the clusters to be horizontal or vertical? I mean by this are the clusters to be formed of groups of schools separately across primary and secondary level – or from individual high schools down into their feeder primaries? Watson’s clusters were essentially horizontal, but I rather suspect the SNP is looking at high schools providing the leadership with their primaries working in co-operation.

The Conservatives have taken this further by suggesting that local further education colleges could also be brought into a cluster where appropriate. This looks like a good idea, for surely the whole point of decentralising the delivery of education should be to avoid prescriptive models but allow evolution to determine what model best suits an area that may have different demands and for the traditional availability of local skills, geographical remoteness and, say, countering competition from the independent sector.

I might also mention that a certain Tory education spokesman proposed cluster management of lead secondary schools with their feeder primaries back in 2003.

The chap concerned said, “we would… set up management clusters; schools would have greater control over budgets, curriculum and discipline, so, over a period of time, as that bedded in, we could then devolve further power until we got to the point where people actually said: ‘what do we need local authorities for?’” Maybe it is an idea whose time has come? I’d certainly like to think so. Taking support from Tories might be tough for the SNP, I just hope taking an idea I first proposed in the days of pre-history is not a leap too far.

• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain