Hugh Reilly: Digital eavesdropper can be your friend

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The rain in Spain falls mainly, I have discovered, over the apartment I am renting. Depressed by four days of constant drizzle, I decided to soak up some of the local culture by popping in to PJ’s bar in Torrevieja.

Last week, the education minister held what he thought was an open Mike Russell session with college leaders. Unbeknown to Mr Russell, his utterances were being covertly recorded by the chairman of Stow College, Kirk Ramsay. Much to Russell’s dismay, neither the tape nor Ramsay self-destructed after three seconds. Later, perhaps in the basement of a nearby multi-storey car park, Stow College’s Deep Throat passed on copies of the conversation to others involved in implementing reforms to the further education sector. Kirk Ramsay’s college nightmare began when Russell stated that he no longer had confidence in him. Despite an apology from Ramsay, the minister is demanding he resign. Probably cheesed off that he has no legal power to sack the college chairman, Russell has resorted to pressurising other college heads to disown him. “Who will rid me of this turbulent chairman?,” he asks.

Wanting the noggin of Kirk Ramsay on a platter seems a bit of an overreaction. In my opinion, Ramsay was wrong to secretly tape the event but surely, given the number of electronic devices – iPhones, iPads etc – that can be used to make recordings, a government minister with a bit of savvy would avoid saying anything that could potentially embarrass him. Would Russell have acted like Rochester’s mad wife in the attic if someone had written a verbatim account of the event? Everyone agrees, with the exception of Tommy Sheridan, that recording a speech ensures accuracy and reduces the chance of comments being misinterpreted.

The hitherto urbane Russell is obviously feeling the prickly heat of the proposed structural changes to the college sector. Already, thousands of part-time places have been cut and Audit Scotland has stated that the reforms may lead to “cost pressures”, that is, inevitable redundancies and a reduction in the number of courses on offer. Little wonder, then, that the EIS and some decision-makers within the sector appear to be giving Russell the kind of support one normally associates with a rubber crutch.

In my teaching career, there were several occasions when I wished I had made a secret recording of an encounter with management. I recall a deputy headteacher telling me that he would write a letter to Glasgow City Council asking that I be transferred out of the Catholic school sector for the good of the establishment. At a subsequent meeting with the then depute director of the service, the deputy HT twice denied making any such comment, forcing the cockerel in the corner of the room to stand up and clear its throat. I also remember when I questioned a school manager as to why a girl wearing a Celtic football top was being sent home to change while youngsters in Rangers shirts were allowed to remain at their desks. “She’ll get bullied wearing Celtic colours,” he replied.

If surreptitious recording spreads to other areas of education, things could become very interesting. At Parents Evenings, digitally capturing the dialogue between the teacher and the begetters of an excitable scamp would expose the euphemisms both parties employ to describe the no-self-control behaviour of Satan’s seed. Hidden microphones in the office of a headteacher in a failing school would pick up his phone call to the Samaritans on hearing it is to be the subject of an HMIE inspection.

When he rewinds and analyses his outburst, Mike Russell may regret not pressing pause before speaking.