HUGH Henry was appointed Scotland's new education minister yesterday after Peter Peacock was forced to stand down for health reasons.
Mr Peacock, 54, who had held the post since the last Holyrood election in May 2003, tendered his resignation after receiving medical treatment for a condition akin to a mild stroke.
In his resignation letter to Jack McConnell, the First Minister, he said he was stepping down "with great regret".
"As you are aware, I have been experiencing a prolonged period of poor health," Mr Peacock wrote.
"It has become increasingly apparent that a ministerial lifestyle is not conducive to either promoting or maintaining my health and following further recent difficulties and advice, I have concluded that I must give my health priority attention."
The First Minister said Mr Peacock was leaving the education system "in good shape", with morale high, increasing numbers of teachers entering the profession and pupil attainment improving.
"These are significant achievements of which you can be justifiably proud," Mr McConnell said.
Mr Peacock, who has also served as minister for finance, local government, public services, Europe and Gaelic since being elected as a Labour MSP for the Highland region in 1999, will now spend some time recuperating at home before returning to the parliament as a backbench MSP.
Labour Party sources insist he will seek re-election next May.
Last night, leading figures within the education profession paid tribute to Mr Peacock's achievements. Bill McGregor, the general-secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said: "He has been an excellent education minister and we're going to miss him."
Ronnie Smith, the general-secretary of the EIS teaching union, said
: "He has been an outstanding minister, with both a genuine commitment to, and a solid grasp of, his brief.
"Under his leadership, Scottish education has moved forward significantly, with a high degree of consensus.
"The key to that consensus has been Mr Peacock's engagement with teachers and his recognition of the need to involve teachers fully in education reform."
Hugh Henry, the Labour MSP for Paisley South, takes over as education minister after four years as deputy justice minister. He was previously deputy health minister.
Mr Henry, a former Renfrewshire Council leader, said: "Every child should have the best opportunity in life and that is what will drive me in this new job."
Jack McConnell said: "Hugh brings knowledge, experience and a passion for young people to his new position and he will have my full support."
Johann Lamont has replaced Mr Henry as deputy justice minister. She is replaced by Des McNulty as the new deputy minister for communities.
Labour's reformed militant
LIKE many before him, Hugh Henry has gone from left-wing firebrand to New Labour politician in a little over 20 years.
Born in Glasgow in 1952, Hugh Henry attended St Mirin's Academy in Paisley.
After graduating from Glasgow University in 1973, he worked as an accountant
before joining Strathclyde Regional Council education department in 1976, where he remained for the next 20 years.
He entered elected office as a member of Renfrew District Council in 1984 - a member of the far-left Militant Tendency.
Rising through the ranks he became leader of the Labour-controlled Council in 1995.
During his four-year reign, he presided over several stormy clashes with his SNP opponents, with the police even having to be called to restore order on occasion.