JOHN Swinney was placed in charge of overhauling Scotland’s education system in a Cabinet reshuffle that saw Nicola Sturgeon appoint her most trusted colleague to the schools brief.
The high-profile move came after the First Minister staked her personal reputation on closing the attainment gap by widening access to higher and further education for those from deprived backgrounds.
After nine years as finance secretary, Mr Swinney replaces Angela Constance, whose handling of the education portfolio had attracted criticism.
Ms Constance moves to communities, social security and equalities, a position tasked with implementing new welfare powers being devolved to Scotland.
Derek Mackay takes over from Mr Swinney in the crucial role of finance secretary. Mr MacKay’s promotion means he will have responsibility for the new tax powers coming to Holyrood in a redefined role, which has been described as being more like a Chancellor in its focus on tax and spending.
One of two new faces, Mr Mackay has risen from the junior ranks where he was in charge of transport.
John’s record is exemplary, overseeing a succession of balanced budgets as well as delivering the recent fiscal framework dealNicola Sturgeon
Mr Swinney will continue to be Deputy First Minister and will also have responsibility for public sector reform across the government as well as ultimate responsibility for the controversial “named person” legislation.
Fergus Ewing has been promoted from his position as a junior minister in charge of energy to become Cabinet secretary for the rural economy and connectivity. Mr Ewing’s promotion means that the issue of fracking no longer comes under his remit.
The controversial decision about whether to go ahead with unconventional gas extraction will fall to Keith Brown, who has been appointed to a create a new economy, jobs and fair work cabinet post, which takes over part of the old finance brief.
Mr Brown’s appointment will lead to suggestions that the Scottish Government is hardening its line against fracking. He represents Clackmannanshire, a constituency that has seen many anti-fracking protests.
In the past, Mr Brown has said he has “serious concerns” about the technology while Mr Ewing has been criticised by the anti-fracking lobby for steadfastly refusing to rule it out. Last night campaigners against fracking welcomed the change.
The casualties were the veteran MSP Alex Neil and Richard Lochhead, who quit as rural affairs secretary following widespread anger from farmers over delays to their common agricultural policy (CAP) payments.
His departure came on the eve of the publication of a damning report by Audit Scotland setting out the Scottish Government’s multiple failures in the farm payments system.
In a letter to the First Minister, Mr Lochhead said he wanted to change the priorities in his life following his wife Fiona’s diagnosis with breast cancer.
Mr Neil and Mr Lochhead announced their departure just ahead of yesterday’s reshuffle.
The First Minister said her and Mr Swinney’s focus following the reshuffle would be to ensure a “world-class” education system and deliver on the promise to close the attainment gap.
She said: “John’s record is exemplary, overseeing a succession of balanced budgets as well as delivering the recent fiscal framework deal that will underpin the new powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
“His appointment to this crucial role demonstrates how important education is to my government.”
Fiona Hyslop will remain culture and external affairs secretary but her remit in the ten-strong Cabinet will be extended to include tourism.
Shona Robison and Michael Matheson have retained their roles as secretaries for health and justice respectively, with Ms Sturgeon praising their “excellent track record”.
Roseanna Cunningham will take up the new post of environment, climate change and land reform secretary. Ms Cunningham is known to be a strong proponent of redistributing Scottish landownership and her appointment signals that the government intends to keep land reform high on the agenda.
Ms Sturgeon’s appointments maintain the Cabinet’s 50:50 gender balance.
Despite being tipped for a Cabinet job, Humza Yousaf remains a junior minister but has been moved to the challenging transport brief.
In the other junior positions, the new MSP Jeane Freeman, a former adviser to Labour’s Jack McConnell, has had a rapid rise becoming the Scottish Government’s first dedicated minister for social security.
Mark McDonald will become the new Minister for Childcare and Early Years, supporting Mr Swinney when it comes to implementing the Scottish Government’s childcare expansion plans. He may also have a role in the named person legislation.
Shirley-Anne Somerville completed the education team, with her appointment as minister for further education, higher education and science.
Paul Wheelhouse was appointed as minister for business, innovation and energy, meaning that he will have a role in fracking decisions along with Mr Brown.
Jamie Hepburn has become minister for employability and training, linking up education and the economy and reporting to both Mr Swinney and Mr Brown.
Kevin Stewart was made minister for local government and housing
Mr Yousaf will be replaced as minister for international eevelopment and Europe by Alasdair Allan.
CABINET APPOINTMENTS IN FULL:
First Minister: Nicola Sturgeon
Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills: John Swinney
Finance and the Constitution: Derek Mackay
Health and Sport: Shona Robison
Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform: Roseanna Cunningham
Culture, Tourism and External Affairs: Fiona Hyslop
Communities, Social Security and Equalities: Angela Constance
Justice: Michael Matheson
Economy, Jobs and Fair Work: Keith Brown
Rural Economy and Connectivity: Fergus Ewing
Childcare and Early Years: Mark McDonald
Further Education, Higher Education and Science: Shirley-Anne Somerville
Parliamentary Business: Joe FitzPatrick
Transport and the Islands: Humza Yousaf
Business, Innovation and Energy: Paul Wheelhouse
Employability and Training: Jamie Hepburn (Reporting to cabinet secretaries for economy and education)
Public Health and Sport: Aileen Campbell
Mental Health: Maureen Watt
Community Safety And Legal Affairs: Annabelle Ewing
Local Government & Housing: Kevin Stewart
Social Security: Jeane Freeman
International Development and Europe: Alasdair Allan