Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Right hand woman on centre stage

Fiona Hyslop

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland website

Of all Alex Salmond's senior ministers, Fiona Hyslop, has probably been given the hardest time by the opposition "broken promises" brigade.

She served as the SNP's first education secretary for more than two years and, during that time, found herself at the sharp end of repeated opposition claims of dropped manifesto pledges such as dumping student debt and cutting class sizes.

Rather than withering under pressure, she chose to battle on to address the concerns.

Stressing a tight financial settlement from the UK Treasury meant tough choices had to be made, Ms Hyslop also achieved success in her role, including the "restoration of free education in Scotland", following the death of the graduate endowment.

In the end though, the sustained criticism proved too much and she found herself expelled from her cabinet role.

Ms Hyslop, described as John Swinney's "right hand woman" during his time as SNP leader, took to full-time politics following a marketing career in the financial services industry.

Her association with the Nationalists began in 1986 and she stood both as a councillor and MP on several occasions, before entering Holyrood in 1999 as a Lothian list MSP.

In the first parliament, the married mother-of-three, who grew up in Ayrshire, served on Holyrood's social justice committee, and is a former SNP parliamentary business manager.

The plan to write off student debt has never been honoured, but Ms Hyslop did win credit for honouring a pledge to scrap the student graduate endowment

As SNP education spokeswoman, she urged Scottish MPs to vote down the UK Government's higher education legislation which brought in controversial top-up tuition fees.

And she scored an early hit against the first Labour/Lib Dem administration after her queries about unemployment figures resulted in the admission that some of the stats were based on newspaper reports.

She branded a decision by universities to dock the wages of striking lecturers during the 2006 pay dispute "inflammatory".

The row centred on claims academic pay had fallen in real terms - an accusation which would be levelled at the future education secretary on overall university funding.

Ms Hyslop also made repeated calls on Holyrood ministers to help end the long-term detention of immigrant children in removal centres, such as Dungavel in Lanarkshire, a cause she took up with the Home Office once becoming a minister herself.

In government, she also brought forward another of her long-term aims, to extend free school meals in deprived areas.

Ms Hyslop saw an opportunity to get the 2007 Holyrood election campaign off to a good start after the out-going administration dropped a pledge to cut some secondary class sizes - an issue over which she later found herself in hot water in government.

Declaring war

She contested the SNP target seat of Linlithgow but failed to take it from Labour and returned to Holyrood as a list MSP.

Shortly after the SNP's win at the polls, she indicated the government may not be able to deliver the pledge to cut class sizes in P1-3 to a maximum of 18.

After many months of opposition complaint, Ms Hyslop eventually said she would bring in legislation to cap numbers at 25 pupils and only in primary one, saying the recession had slowed progress.

Controversy raised its head in other areas too.

Following an SNP promise to match the previous government's school building programme "brick-for-brick", Ms Hyslop announced in June 2009 a £1.25bn plan to provide about 55 new schools amid accusations by Labour of unnecessary delay.

But there were also successes.

That pledge to write off student debt has never been honoured, but Ms Hyslop did win credit for honouring a pledge to scrap the £2,289 student graduate endowment fee.

She said the policy, brought in by the previous Scottish government, had "clearly failed", revealing that, in the three years it had been in operation, two thirds of those due to pay the fee had simply added it to their student loan.

Funding taskforce

Ms Hyslop also saw through new legislation to toughen procedures for councils wanting to close rural schools, as part of a drive to protect remote communities.

And early on in her tenure she set up a university funding taskforce, under pressure from higher education leaders, which resulted in an extra £10m for the sector.

She also announced a £1.5m rescue package, allowing Glasgow University to reopen admission to undergraduates at its Crichton campus in south Scotland.

But, in the end, opposition attacks on Scottish government education policy were coming thick and fast, sometimes on an almost daily basis.

First Minister Alex Salmond mounted a strong defence of her record during question time at Holyrood.

He told MSPs the standard grade pass rate was 98.5% in 2009, while the pass rates for higher exams and advanced highers were 74.2% and 77.8% respectively.

The first minister said at the time: "I will put on record the approval and the endorsement I have for an education secretary who's helped, along with the pupils and teachers of Scotland, to achieve the record levels of attainment."

But that statement was followed by government statistics showing a fall in teacher numbers of 1,348.

Ms Hyslop declared war on Scotland's councils, saying they were spending cash earmarked for teachers on "other purposes".

That was one of her final acts as education secretary and, just days later, it was announced she was to be demoted to culture minister, under a job-swap arrangement with Mike Russell.

On the day of the announcement, Ms Hyslop was sent to London to attend a meeting of the joint ministerial committee - under the external affairs part of her new ministerial job.



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