Interview: Mike Russell

by Dec 21, 2009 No Comments
In his first interview as Education Secretary, Mike Russell spells out his approach

Photographs by Matt Davis
The efficiency with which a man comes in the dead of night to the Scottish Parliament and changes the titles on the Scottish Government’s ministerial office doors is only matched by the speed with which the new Education Secretary has managed to broker a spirit of reconciliation between Scotland’s local authorities and his beleaguered department.

A fortnight ago, Scotland’s education system, once viewed as the jewel in the country’s crown, was fast being seen as the SNP Government’s Achilles’ heel. A series of negative educational headlines including the lack of progress on the Curriculum for Excellence, the numbers of qualified teachers unable to get work, falling standards on international league tables and the lack of a school buildings’ programme, culminated in predictions, just two weeks ago, of the end of the historic Concordat as the then Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, went head-tohead with councils as she lost patience and threatened, in a fit of pique, to remove control of the delivery of education from them and bring it under central government control unless they made more progress on reducing class sizes – a key SNP manifesto pledge.

The apparent threat created an uproar, with Ms Hyslop, already dubbed ‘hapless Hyslop’ by her opposite numbers in the Scottish Parliament, left at the centre of a potentially devastating schism which saw COSLA pitted against the SNP Government and the Concordat being used as a stick with which to beat all sides.

Despite sympathy for the almost impossible situation Hyslop was placed in; having to deliver and defend an ambitious SNP agenda specifically focused on reducing class sizes in P1, 2 and 3 to just 18 in a context of shrinking budgets and with no direct control or responsibility for delivery under the terms of the Concordat, she was becoming an increasingly isolated, impotent and defensive character who had been backed into a corner of her own party’s making. Daily media speculation about her position and the almost unseemly clamour for her demise from the opposition benches ended on December 1 with a snap reshuffle announcement. News of the change was, as is the norm with the SNP Government, kept incredibly tight – Russell himself was in the dark until he was called at midnight by the First Minister and asked if he would become Scotland’s new Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, replacing Hyslop whose tenure in the post was becoming clearly untenable, not least by a threatened vote of no confidence in her by the opposition parties, led by Tavish Scott, and the fact that she rather than her policies had become the story.

Russell, in what is now becoming his modus operandi, walked straight into the storm with sleeves rolled up and holding out an olive branch to his Concordat partners. In almost instantaneous response, COSLA welcomed the appointment and a thawing of relations.

In return for a loosening of targets around provision of free school meals, councils would agree to pursue the ideal of lower class sizes and while all councils have still to sign up officially to this resetting of purpose, it seems they have already rolled over and allowed Russell to tickle their tummies, which begs the question – why wasn’t Hyslop simply given the same authority?

The answer may be in approach. Russell is getting something of a reputation as a trouble-shooter. Arrogant, direct and a bit too smart for his own good are run of the mill descriptions. Having been a member of the SNP for over 35 years and held a variety of jobs within the party including chief executive as well as being an MSP in the first Parliament before losing his seat in 2003, he has friends as well as enemies. As an accomplished writer and broadcaster, he has written extensively on Scottish identity and history and while much of his work is brought back to haunt him, no one could ever accuse him of not being prepared to put his money where his mouth is. He tells it how it is and despite a tendency to get slightly carried away with the elegance of debate, he is able to win detractors round, simply by the force of his wit and knowledge. He is both forthright and insecure, which is a potent mix in politics and is self-aware enough to build bridges and cement relationships by recognising the flaws in others as well as his own. His biggest learning curve came in 2003 when he lost his seat and learnt a lot as an outside observer of the bubble before coming back in 2007 as the list member for South of Scotland.

He comes from a family of teachers – both his parents were teachers, his cousin is one and his wife is a primary school head – and having initially trained as an Episcopalian priest, there is something of both the confessor and confidant about him. He revels in words and is entertaining company. For some, the whole package can be a little intimidating, which could explain some of the negative press.

Last week Russell was embroiled in a messy war of words over allegations from his former constituency manager in Dumfries and author of a pro independence blog ‘The Universality of Cheese’ that Russell had known and contributed to a number of scurrilous allegations about opposition politicians published on that blog. Russell categorically denies this.

“I regret that this has happened but I think the great thing about writing is that you write in your own name. Nobody could accuse me of not being controversial under my own name and I have got into trouble in the past about that but I think the great thing is that you stand and fall by what you say because you take the responsibility, because you say it in your own name and when you do it anonymously it encourages you to say and do things that you shouldn’t and that is a great danger.” Regardless of the outcome of this current spat, Russell is nothing if not a survivor.

Many believed he had burned his political bridges when he stood against Alex Salmond as leader in 2004 and convincingly lost and were as surprised as he was when he was appointed to the ministerial team as environment minister by Salmond in 2007 when the SNP formed its first government.

He described his role then as one of conflict management and had to deal with a number of thorny issues including the Crofting Bill, wildlife crime and the abortive attempt to lease out sections of Scotland’s forestry estate.

Photographs by Matt DavisThen as Minister for Culture, he replaced Linda Fabiani at a time of great upheaval with the creation of Creative Scotland and successfully managed to gel various disparate parties within the arts. The day before he was appointed Education Secretary, he delivered the crucially important White Paper on an independence referendum.

Education Secretary is now his third post in the government team and takes him into the Cabinet and inner circle for the first time.

It is a mark of his dexterity that on his first day in his new role, he visited Inverkeithing Primary School to meet staff and pupils and was heard being interviewed on Radio 4, sounding no-nonsense and the seasoned educational professional.

In his first fortnight he has taken part in an education debate in Parliament, delivered the annual Gaelic lecture at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, attended the Modern Apprenticeship Awards, proposed a new way forward on key education policies, which was discussed with COSLA and has now been put to council leaders, held a stakeholder event for 160 representatives from Scotland’s nurseries, schools, colleges and universities to listen to their views, launched the Scottish Education Awards 2010 and opened the refurbished St Kentigerns School in Glasgow. Not to mention a jam-packed diary full of internal meetings and briefings on important policy issues.

Russell is nothing short of a whirlwind but whether his approach will be enough to calm the gathering clouds of discontent over the SNP’s approach to education is still to be seen.

Last Wednesday Scottish Labour attacked Russell following his first education statement for his ‘complete failure’ to even acknowledge what it called the SNP’s schools disaster. Labour’s education spokesman, Des McNulty, said: “Mike Russell tried today to award himself an ‘A’ when everyone can see that the Scottish Government’s education policies are in tatters. Only in Mike Russell’s fantasy world is everything wonderful.

Teachers, parents and young people know different. Across Scotland school staffing establishments are being cut, pupil-teacher ratios going up and support budgets slashed.

From Edinburgh to East Ayrshire the SNP is presiding over chaos while Mike Russell responds with bombast.” Critics notwithstanding, Russell’s appointment, says the FM, promises a fresh pair of eyes. Those eyes have already managed to pour oil on the troubled waters that led to Hyslop’s demise and have also looked benignly on the work of his predecessor.

Russell is clearly fond of Hyslop, heaps praise on her achievements and claims she was treated very badly.

“There comes a time in politics when change becomes necessary and the First Minister wanted a fresh eye and a fresh view.

The First Minister has a good eye for these things and he understands when change is desired and he made that decision and I accepted the challenge.

“It was absolutely unexpected and not in ideal circumstances, certainly not a situation I would have sought. I think the hypocrisy of what we heard from the opposition as a group of people who had shrilly called for Fiona’s resignation for months and months and then wept crocodile tears and blamed someone else when she was removed from her post, puts politics into disrepute. Fiona had done a good job and I feel she was unfairly treated by the Opposition and the media….but that’s not the issue; the issue is that the First Minister says he wants you to do this job and I suppose you could say yes, or you could say no. Those are your choices and I said yes, and I will do my best. I think the changes show the ability the Government and the First Minister has to constantly look ahead and look at what needs to be done and respond to what is being said in the country and is a sign of a thinking, listening and responsive government.” He says the first evidence of that will be in a resetting of the Concordat educational commitments in the light of practical realities around budgets.

“There is no point in having a commitment to policies that neither side can deliver. The reality is that we have recognised that times have changed since the Concordat was signed and we saw from the pre-Budget report that things are bad and are going to get worse and we need to have some hard-nosed reality in our relationship. Councils are saying that and I am saying that and we have a framework which says that I want to achieve greater achievement on class sizes than they have done so far and I think we can put another 11,000 in classes P1, 2 and 3 of 18 and less within a year but to do that, I recognise they will have to prioritise that and there are some things that they are not going to deliver as quickly as we expected and one of them will be the universality of free school meals. I want to work with them to make sure we do more in the areas of deprivation so yes, target first and then build from there.” But isn’t this just the SNP having to backtrack on another manifesto commitment?

“It’s realism. I hope whatever my critics say that they will recognise I am a realist and times have changed. I hate in politics gaps between rhetoric and reality because in the gap, people are suffering, so we need to bring together rhetoric and a reality. This government was determined to deliver on class sizes when it started and I believe everybody was determined to deliver it and all this Holyrood bubble stuff about what Alex knew and when he knew it is absolute nonsense. We were determined to deliver and it has become apparent with changed circumstances that it is becoming harder and harder to deliver and it has also been hard because some authorities have not tried but I am creating the circumstances, I hope, for progress to be made in the next 18 months.

“No, we won’t reach the 100 per cent target but we will have made more progress. The reality of class sizes is this; when we came into power, class sizes were considerably larger in every circumstance than they are now, they have progressively declined. I have a view that while 18 is not a magic number and not sufficient to allow for everything else to happen, it is a necessary condition in many places for progress to happen. I think there is a minimum we could reach by 2011 and I am being realistic about that and I am allowing the councils to work with me to reach that and I am not making demands that cannot be met. I think if I was to go on making demands that couldn’t be met, I may feel better in a macho political way, but it won’t do anything for Scotland’s children.” I put it to the new Education Secretary who, interestingly, is more than happy to take credit for the original policy formulation about class sizes that this obsession with numbers is becoming a distraction in a wider debate about schooling.

“There is no magic bullet in any part of our lives, if there were, we would all have them but within the complexity of the policy mix, there are always things that are more important than others. You could say that achieving primary class sizes of 18 or less is shorthand for situations in Scotland’s schools where teachers are able to cope with the young people and give them the best of attention to help them achieve good education outcomes. It is not the only thing, having good equipment, good teachers, willing pupils, these are all important but we know the quality of that interaction improves in that circumstance and we know it does because there is good international evidence that supports that but we also [have] good old-fashioned common sense telling us it is the right thing.” Why not just cut out the middle man and just ringfence budgets and tell councils what to spend it on? Surely that kind of overarching control appeals to a man like Russell?

“It’s always difficult to deal with democracy but better to do that than anything else,” he laughs. “The French education system used to run on the premise that the French education minister could look at his clock and know what every child in France was being taught at that moment. That is one model but I don’t think it applies to the modern Scottish democratic intellect because where there is a desire for people to have freedom of action and opportunity, so we need to coordinate our ambitions and work with those who are delivering and that is what we are trying to do. The alternative is rigid ringfencing on every penny that is spent and we have rejected that, and for very good reasons, and there are members on the Labour benches who will try and tell you that ringfencing was in the halcyon days but go back to local authorities and see how ringfencing wasted money. It put local authorities and schools in particular positions where they were scrabbling to spend money on things they didn’t want and being driven in directions they didn’t want to go and that is not better than choice. We need to be very, very strong on this, the removal of ringfencing makes it much more difficult to get policy delivery by diktat; it makes it much better in terms of getting willing buyin and indulging in the basis of democracy, which is debate and persuasion. There are some people who can not be persuaded on class sizes but in those circumstances, I am sorry, but the majority hold sway and the majority of councils wish to do it this way so why they should be dictated to by a minority who just don’t want to play ball because of politics?

I don’t approve of that and I suspect most councils don’t either.” Does he mean Glasgow?

“I don’t regard Glasgow as an intractable problem. I don’t think the people of Glasgow or the council in Glasgow hate this government. I think what we have are some issues that need to be resolved and I said at the beginning I would sit down with Steven [Purcell] at the very beginning and I am doing that. I know Steven and I know him to be a mature and responsible politician and I hope he will sit down with me and we can work these things out together and, frankly, if he doesn’t do that then that is his problem and not mine.

“I would like to draw people into a broader consensus about education but that’s not easy.

Photographs by Matt DavisI don’t want a soft consensus because I want a consensus on the basis that we have things to achieve and I want to achieve them.” What about the ultimate threat spelt out by Hyslop of taking the role of education delivery away from councils?

“On my first day in office I said, and I will keep on saying, that I want a debate about how we move education forward but we have an existing delivery mechanism and even if there was some fiat that said we will change the delivery of education then I doubt it could be done in one year or even two given where we are at just now, so it is a tremendous exaggeration to say we are going to change the delivery mechanism. On the other hand, we need a debate and when East Lothian says it has ideas then it is my duty to listen to them and when others say they have ideas then I should debate them but I have no plan and no agenda; I just want to have a discussion and I think everyone in education should be open minded about how we make progress. I have shown my commitment to the existing model in seeking to work as strongly and realistically as I can with those who are presently delivering.

“I think there is a wish for a system by which we can make rational decisions about education, shorn of the nonsense we have heard in the last few weeks, which have merely become politics and jibe.

“There are models in other countries which are interesting. In Finland, they have a longterm plan which is bought into by all sections of society and education is seen as central to how society progresses and not just blown about by the winds of politics and in Ireland, the social partnership model has worked well.

I think we need to look at how we consider education in that context but my first priority is to make sure that the steady progress we need to make is maintained, there are a range of current issues I need to attend to and one of them is the relationship with COSLA and one is to the ensure that Curriculum for Excellence is what it must be and there is huge enthusiasm for that but I have made a commitment that I won’t sign anything off until I am sure it is going to work. There are also big issues in the skills agenda and education has a huge role in the economic recovery and Fiona did tremendous work in PACE and I want to build on that. On the early years stuff – Adam is a star in the way he has progressed the Early Years’ agenda, and the Children’s Hearing Bill is one we want to get right, there is a new HMIE coming in and we have the ongoing difficult Fatal Accident Inquiry in the Borders [into the suicide of a headmistress following a difficult HMIE inspection] and there may be questions about the inspection process from that, there is the universities’ funding issue; in short, I am not short of items for my agenda.” For a man who clearly relishes the whole notion of education, how does he feel about falling academic standards? I point to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey (Timss), published last year, which highlighted “an unacceptable failing in maths and science in Scotland’s schools” and confirmed “the urgent need to act”, according to Fiona Hyslop. The four-year survey at P5 and S2 ranked Scotland’s primary pupils 22nd for maths and 23rd for science and its secondary pupils 17th for maths and 15th for science. In a table of 59 countries, Scottish students came in behind England in each category and had a lower achievement than Kazakhstan, Slovenia, Lithuania and Armenia. How could this happen in a country which places such high esteem on learning?

“Nobody would deny there are problems to solve in education in Scotland but every day in Scotland, and this is central to where we are, is that hundreds of thousands of young people are being taught by tens of thousands of teachers in thousands of schools and being provided with good education. I am lucky in a sense in this job because my wife is a primary headteacher and I see the commitment of teachers, commitment of children and commitment of parents – this happens and there is a great tendency in Scotland to throw our hands up in horror and this week it’s over education, last week it was something else and next week it will be over something else. There are problems and they need to be resolved and we need a ‘calm sook’, to use a Scottish phrase, to solve those problems.

“I think we have a great tendency to beat ourselves up. Let’s look at what we are succeeding in and what we are failing in, we will tackle.” Whether Scotland is losing its ground in international league tables or not, some parents undoubtedly feel they are losing out and taking desperate measures to ensure their own children get an education that they consider good, whether that means lying about residence to get in a particular catchment area or struggling financially to put a child through private education. How does the new Education Secretary achieve equality of delivery, never mind opportunity?

“I think there are issues in some places in Scotland about delivery and we need to address those and the councils need to address those too. I think there is often a tendency to believe that a private education will deliver more than it will do. I have always believed in an educational mixed economy but it is not a significant issue in Scotland and the numbers of children in private school has been fairly constant over the years. I think the bigger issue is making every school a good school and that is why I have taken a very supportive stance over the years on Catholic schools because Scotland is not one jot better for losing a good school and whatever your opinions about Catholic education, I think good education, where it exists, needs to be encouraged and where standards have dropped then it needs to be brought back up and you usually get that by encouragement and leadership rather than dragooning people. I think there are many myths about education in Scotland and one of my jobs is to be hard headed about what is and isn’t real and to talk about that.” Some people would argue that in the pursuit of educational universality, we have allowed education to be dumbed down.

“I think we have universality because it tends to work. I was a pupil at Scotland’s allegedly first comprehensive school. Marr College, when it was established in 1935, accepted all the children from Troon and didn’t divide children. At that stage, it was undoubtedly streamed but it was a comprehensive school and provided by a benefactor for all the children so when I went there in 1964, all the children from Troon and Braehead and Brassay went there. That was a good strong thing in Scottish education that everyone had an equal opportunity and we should stick to it but what we should do, and I don’t think this breaks the idea of universality is, we should offer additional help and support to those children that require it and that actually is child centred learning, making sure that we respond to the needs of every child.” What about streaming?

“I think that dividing children artificially or in a way that stigmatises them is a bad thing.

I think the element of each child being in competition with others to succeed is not a bad thing; it tells you what life is about. I am not against competition and I am not about the pursuit of excellence, by any manner of means and we should celebrate it but I am against traditional streaming because the way it was done was unfortunate.

“I don’t want to sound like Miss Marple and compare everything to my own experience but when I was in my first and second years, I did really well in English and then in my third year, I flunked an exam and got put down two streams and this, to a lot of people, seemed immensely wrong and I felt very badly about it and I felt it was wrong and I don’t think it was right and if we had been taught in the same way without distinction, I wouldn’t have had to feel like that. I have friends that never recovered from that kind of thing. I just think it is wrong. We talk about these things as if it was some ideal golden past and there were good things in traditional Scottish education but there were also very bad things.

Children got beaten for not remembering a verse of a psalm or being left-handed. I for one was forced to write with my right hand even though I know now I am naturally lefthanded so today I am ambidextrous with very bad handwriting.” There has been a suggestion that he is an ideological Tory because of things he has written in the past about Trust schools and parental choice. Is that true?

“I find it a surprising suggestion but then I think it is quite positive for a politician not to be straitjacketed. I am SNP by conviction and by 35 years of being a member of the party, so I suspect I am here to stay. I am not a Tory. I think there are many things in Conservative policy that I would completely reject but I think if they can find agreement with some of the things I say then that is a positive step forward. You could look at other stances I have taken over the years then you could see me ideologically to the far left. I suspect the worst thing that can be said about me is that I am free thinker and I am a free thinker and in a sense, I am an iconoclast and that is probably a dangerous thing to be in politics.” And the $64,000 question – what is the point of education?

“I would quote the Isaac Newton line which says it is not just about filling the well but about the lighting of a fire. Education is liberation. It’s about opening up lives and creating opportunity and we have a huge responsibility to do it right and do it properly but always in collaboration with the individual. Education is a joint activity and we should all be working to get that right.”

Mandy Rhodes Mandy Rhodes

Mandy Rhodes is Managing Editor of Holyrood Communications. Mandy is editor of the flagship title Holyrood magazine and responsible for the editorial content of all other associated titles and products. Mandy graduated from StirlingUniversity in the early 1980s with a joint Honours degree in Scottish History and Sociology. She trained on a local newspaper in Wester Hailes and completed her journalism training at Napier University. She has worked for nearly 30 years in journalism in Scotland in newsprint, television and radio broadcasting and was part of the launch team of Scotland on Sunday. She has won numerous awards over the years including PPA Magazine Editor of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Columnist of the year. She was social...

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