Page last updated at 17:51 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Demoted SNP education secretary endorses successor

Fiona Hyslop has been made culture and external affairs minister
Fiona Hyslop has been made culture and external affairs minister

Former Scottish education secretary Fiona Hyslop has endorsed her successor in the post, after she was demoted in a government reshuffle.

She told BBC Scotland Mike Russell was the right man for the job.

Ms Hyslop has come under sustained attack on falling teacher numbers, class sizes and school buildings.

She has taken on Mr Russell's role of culture minister, after Alex Salmond said a "fresh look" was needed on the issue of education.

Ms Hyslop was speaking from Westminster, where she was attending a meeting relating to her new government role.

She said it was, "important we recognise our achievements in education and we have to move on in our relationship particularly with local authorities - I think Mike Russell is the right minister to do that".

When asked about her demotion, Ms Hyslop added: "We have a very tight and integrated Scottish government.

Brian taylor
Brian Taylor
Political editor

On Fiona Hyslop's watch, teacher numbers had dropped substantially: a development she herself described as "unacceptable" - although that epithet was aimed at local authorities, whom she blamed.

It was becoming difficult for Alex Salmond to defend her in the face of such statistics.

In such circumstances, the first minister has to bolster his own reputation - and sacrifice that of a colleague.

"We've had major achievements, we are a minority government, of course we are always going to be under attack but it is important to pursue our case and to make sure we have the best ministers placed to do that."

The reshuffle - the first change in the Scottish cabinet since the SNP came to power in 2007 - came just days after Scottish government statistics showed a fall in teacher numbers of 1,348 over the past year.

Ms Hyslop branded the drop "unacceptable", while blaming councils for spending cash earmarked for teachers on "other purposes".

The first minister, who only weeks ago defended Ms Hyslop's record as education secretary, said: "Schools policy has reached a difficult period, with our disagreement with many local authorities about their failure to reduce class sizes by sustaining teacher numbers. While we have achieved a new record low in primary school class sizes.

"It is appropriate that a fresh look is taken at this and other schooling issues to break the impasse for the benefit of parents, teachers and children. I believe that Michael Russell can bring new thinking to this tough task."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott, whose party began moves to bring forward the motion of no confidence over the weekend, said: "We're going to get a new education secretary, but boy does he have a big job.

michael russell
Mike Russell:
Curriculum vitae

The former SNP chief executive, and party leadership rival to Alex Salmond, became environment minister on his return to parliament in 2007, after losing his seat in the 2003 election.

The former TV producer - a key figure in the SNP for more than a decade - then took on the culture brief, and oversaw plans for an independence referendum.

During John Swinney's leadership of the SNP, Mr Russell warned electoral reverses would prompt a visit to Mr Swinney "from the men in grey kilts".

When Mr Swinney quit, Mr Russell stood for the leadership despite not being an MSP, but was beaten by Mr Salmond.

Earlier this year he was attacked by Labour for commenting in a 1998 travel book that Glasgow had "closes smelling of urine and rubbish, cluttered with dirt and debris".

More recently, Mr Russell was embroiled in controversy when a constituency aide, Mark MacLachlan, quit after using an internet blog to make what Labour described as "vile smears" about opponents.

Mr Russell described Mr MacLachlan's actions as "absolutely unacceptable".

"There's a lot of mess to sort out, and sort it out he must."

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray added: "The important thing now is what Mike Russell is going to do.

"Let's see if he's going to change the policies, because that's important as well as changing the personnel."

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, said: "Fiona Hyslop has been an ineffectual education secretary - she lost the confidence of parents, teachers, local authorities and education experts."

Ms Hyslop had also come under fire over the SNP's 2007 manifesto pledge to cap pupil numbers at 18 in the first three years of primary education.

In September, she said she would bring in legislation to cap numbers at 25 pupils and only in primary one, sparking opposition party claims that the Scottish government had dropped one of its key policies.

And, despite announcing a £1.25bn plan to provide about 55 new schools in June, she was accused by Labour of unnecessary delay.

The first minister said Ms Hyslop would do an "excellent job" as minister for culture and external affairs, a role which includes Europe and relations with the UK government.

However, responsibility for the constitution has been taken out of the post.

Mr Salmond said he had now personally taken responsibility for the forthcoming bill on an independence referendum.

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