It’s done. After just over a year, Humza Yousaf has announced his resignation as the First Minister of Scotland.

His replacement will either have to find a way to bring the Greens back into the fold (without bringing them back into government) or they will have to make deals on an issue-by-issue basis with the opposition parties. A number of contentious political matters remain outstanding, there is UK General Election on the horizon, and for the SNP at least, independence is always a key concern.

While the political frisson continues, Scottish education is likely to slide down the agenda – but the identity of Scotland’s First Minister could have an enormous impact on the state of education in the country, a point proven by simply considering Yousaf’s predecessor.

So with Scotland in need of a new First Minister, which option would be best for the future of Scottish education?


John Swinney

The obvious and immediate front-runner, John Swinney is one of the most experienced politicians in Holyrood. He has also been Education Secretary.

You might, therefore, be tempted to consider him as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and, as a result, feel like maybe he’d be the best choice for the education sector. But there are a few problems.

Despite the length of time he spent there, Swinney was never a good or effective education secretary. It has all been largely forgotten these days, but one of the defining events of his time in office was the humiliation of having to withdraw a flagship Education Bill.

The government had tried to force through changes opposed by pretty much everyone except the Tories, and when they eventually realised that only Conservative votes would get it over the line, decided that a public execution of one of their top policies was the preferable outcome. Ultimately, he was reduced to claiming that the Bill hadn’t really been necessary (then why spend all that time and money and effort on it?) and all the things they wanted would happen anyway – but even he didn’t seem to believe it.

And then, of course, there was the 2020 results scandal for which Swinney was directly culpable. Exams had been cancelled due to Covid, and grades were to be assigned by teachers based on students’ work throughout the year. Some were worried that the final results would upset their precious bell curves, so Swinney agreed to a plan that involved targeting pupils in the poorest schools for arbitrary grade reductions. This, he told us, was to ensure fairness. After a week of defending the indefensible, and raising enormous questions about his judgment, he was once again humiliated when he was forced to announce a total U-turn.

Looking back over Swinney’s time in post the conclusions are quite obvious: he was the wrong man for the job at the beginning, by the end, and at most points in between.

Maybe none of this would matter. Perhaps he could make a much bigger contribution by appointing the right person to the job than he ever did in post himself.

All things are possible, though not equally so.


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Jenny Gilruth

Another name floated as a potential successor to Humza Yousaf is Jenny Gilruth. She is the current education secretary and is also a former teacher, a background that you would at least like to assume offers some additional insight into an extraordinarily complex sector, and one that makes her inclusion in this list inevitable.

Her appointment was met with a great deal of positivity from many in the teaching profession, who felt that having someone who had done the job taking charge of things would, surely, at least deliver a cabinet secretary who wasn’t completely ignorant and out of touch.

The teaching background has certainly helped – but only up to a point. Unfortunately, Gilruth has been unwilling or unable to break from the rhetoric, and the long list of mistakes, that characterised the Sturgeon era, and as a result an appointment that could have been transformational has become one of continuity.

Her one major impact so far seems to have been to stall and delay a wide range of education reforms, side-lining a huge amount of work that has already been done and instead announcing the creation of a Centre for Teaching Excellence that nobody had asked for - or even knew about.

The idea that Gilruth would be good for schools if she became FM is based on the fact that she was a teacher, and the hope that this experience would positively influence her decision-making. It could be true, but people said the same things about her being made Education Secretary and look where we are now.

Kate Forbes

The suggestion that Kate Forbes would have any sort of control of education policy in Scotland would cause concern in some quarters and genuine fear in others.

Forbes is a member of the, shall we say, socially-conservative Free Church of Scotland, a faith she chose to join based not on theology or philosophy but, according to Forbes herself, geography: the Free Church, she said in an interview, was “just down the road.”

During the last leadership election, Forbes admitted to opposing equal marriage (or at least she admitted to opposing equal marriage for gay people) and that she would have voted against its legalisation in parliament. That final point, her willingness to use her political position to impose her religious beliefs on everyone else, and withhold rights that she enjoys from a minority group, was and remains an enormous problem. Her subsequent pledge not to roll back existing rights changes little.

One of the most effective and successful reforms to Scottish schools in recent years has been the introduction of LGBT-inclusive education - and it is overwhelming supported by parents across the country. No matter what reassurances she tried to offer, the appointment of Kate Forbes as FM would be seen as a threat to that progress. Given the sort of people who would be celebrating, it would also send a pretty clear message to LGBT kids across the country.