NEW education secretary Mike Russell has been urged to initiate a radical agenda for Scotland's schools – after it emerged he promoted the introduction of vouchers and competition only three years ago.
• New education secretary Michael Russell wrote of his vision for Scotland's schools in a book published in 2006. Picture: Dan Phillips
After Mr Russell lost his seat at the 2003 Scottish election, he argued for a Swedish-style voucher system promoted by those in favour of more private sector involvement and decried the "ideological prejudice" that prevented such ideas being discussed.
He also said children and parents needed to be treated like customers and that there had to be greater choice. His opinions came out in a 2006 book, Grasping the Thistle, which he co-authored with Dennis MacLeod and which attempted to provide a new, more centre-right, dynamic vision of Nationalism in Scotland.
The opinions have been welcomed by business leaders, think tank Reform Scotland and the Tories – who have also backed a voucher system – and they called on Mr Russell to push the book's agenda in his new post.
The book was serialised in The Scotsman and in a piece also co-authored with Mr MacLeod in September 2006, seven months before becoming a minister in the SNP government, Mr Russell wrote: "Some competition is essential to get the best out of our young people and to get the best out of our tax revenues.
"The consumer – the child along with his or her parents, the young person seeking to go to college or university and the mature student – would be able to choose the best facilities for their particular needs, and be able to force new provision on to the market by means of their purchasing power, provided by the state."
CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan has, along with other business leaders, recently raised concerns about an increasingly left-wing SNP agenda. In particular, he has been concerned about opposition to competition. He said: "This is exactly the sort of thinking we want to see in government. I would like this attitude to be applied to areas such as health."
The Tories recently held a conference in Edinburgh on education, where vouchers and more competition came out as alternatives to the current system. Scottish deputy leader Murdo Fraser said: "We are delighted to have an ally in the Cabinet."
Ben Thomson, chairman of Reform Scotland, remarked on the similarities between the views on education expressed by Mr Russell and those set out in the think tank's paper Parent Power, launched in January .
However, the Scottish Government last night insisted the views did not form part of current policy or thinking.
A spokesman for the new education secretary said: "Mr Russell was discussing ideas along with the book's co-author at a time when he was not in the Scottish Parliament."
Tricky tasks from brain drain to class sizes
THE key issues now facing Mr Russell include:
• Stop the brain-drain of teachers. Recent statistics show the drop in the number of teachers is accelerating, despite the SNP's manifesto pledge to maintain numbers. There is anecdotal evidence that some are seeking jobs abroad.
• Reduce class sizes. The reason behind maintaining teacher numbers was that while school rolls fall, class sizes could, too. However, last week's statistics show any drop has stalled.
• Ensure the new Curriculum for Excellence is ready for implementation in all schools from August.
• Find new ways to fund universities and answer calls for a full review of university and student funding.
• Finalise details of qualifications to replace Standard Grades from 2014, and answer critics who say their replacement would see many children leaving school without having sat any externally assessed exam.
• Explain to teacher-training universities how they can keep lecturers and departments open while the number of students is cut by up to 70 per cent.
• Perhaps biggest of all, is the job of getting tough with councils on failing promises.
URBANE, articulate and genial, Mike Russell is a skilled communicator.
But the Kent-born former television producer can sometimes be too gifted a communicator for his own good. Earlier this year he was attacked by Labour MSPs for comments he made in a travel book written in 1998 about Scotland's towns and cities.
This described Glasgow as having "closes smelling of urine and rubbish, cluttered with dirt and debris".
And the flag over Edinburgh Castle was said to be "an awful mutant tablecloth".
Five years previously, he borrowed the notion of the Conservative Party's fabled fixers in grey suits to coin another striking phrase.
At a time when John Swinney was SNP leader, Mr Russell warned that electoral reverses for the party would prompt a visit to Mr Swinney "from the men in grey kilts".
When Mr Swinney later quit, Mr Russell stood for the leadership of the SNP, at a time when he was not an MSP, but was beaten by Alex Salmond.
Yesterday's promotion for Mr Russell is the latest step in a political career that has seen him elected to Holyrood in 1999, lose his seat four years later, then return to parliament in 2007.