James Dornan: Education committee will put concerns on the coalface to quangos

Written by Tom Freeman on 12 October 2016 in Interviews

Interview: the Education and Skills Committee convener on its prominence over the next five years

James Dornan - Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee has been holding off-the-record engagement sessions with teachers parents and school pupils ahead of inviting the major education quangos before committee.

Sitting down with Holyrood ahead of October recess, the committee’s convener James Dornan said meetings had begun during the summer.

“The committee were clear they wanted to hear directly from the front line staff, so that was the way we approached them,” he says.


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During the committee’s pre-budget work in November four organisations – Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Agency, Education Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council – will be invited to update MSPs on progression since their last appearance in the previous parliamentary session.

Dornan says an informal session with teachers on the organisations had taken place, and a “big survey” of frontline staff will follow, which will accept anonymised submissions.

“Part of our pre-budget scrutiny is about trying to find out what other people think of the organisations as well, and what they’re doing,” he says.

Another session saw Dornan and fellow SNP member Gillian Martin meet school pupils aged between seven and nine using ChildrenFirst’s ‘kit bag’, an emotional literacy tool which empowers vulnerable children to talk about their emotions.

In only twenty minutes children were opening up about their own concerns, says Dornan. “We were all affected by it.”

The attempt to hear new voices is not to circumvent member organisations like trade unions and parent groups but to hear voices who do not normally get heard, he says.

“We want to be much more interactive and inclusive and much more willing to get out there to speak to the people affected by the decisions the government makes.”

The summer sessions allowed new members to learn about the workings of the committee system and some of the prominent issues in education, but also provided a “bit of a bonding session” for a cross-party group which will need more collaborative working now the SNP has lost its overall majority.

Dornan says he is impressed with the make up of the committee. “We have got this balance of Liz (Smith), Johann (Lamont) and Tavish (Scott) there, and Colin Beattie was a member of the committee in the last session, then we have what I would consider some of the cream of the crop of the new intake,” he says.

Although there is no specific education legislation in the SNP’s programme for government for the next year, Dornan knows he will have his hands full.

“Although there’s no education bill at present clearly it’s a big focus for government, so over the next five years it’ll be education. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have made that very clear. I mean, I was delighted to get this role as convener of the education committee. I think it’s a great honour.”

The importance of the committee’s place in what may be the dominant reforms of this parliament must be recognised, he adds.

“A recognition of the importance of the role of the committee is one of the main things we would want to pursue, and to make sure we’re at the heart of the decision making process.”

Might that mean he has to put his personal friendship with the Education Secretary John Swinney, a man he says “already feels like part of the committee”, to one side?

“I’ve known John as you rightly say for some time and there’s very few politicians I respect more. One thing about him is he is scrupulous. He understands the different roles people take on and he would expect nothing less from me than me to do my job as convener firmly and fairly. I can assure you I wouldn’t be doing myself any favours in my relationship with him if I did anything else.”

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