Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has focused on education in her first cabinet reshuffle, appointing her deputy to oversee an attempt to improve schools.
John Swinney, deputy first minister and a former leader of the Scottish Nationalists, had been in charge of Scotland’s finances for nine years.
Ms Sturgeon declared ahead of the SNP’s landslide in Scottish parliamentary elections this month that she wants to be judged on whether her government can achieve substantial improvement in Scotland’s once-vaunted education system.
Ms Sturgeon has promised to reintroduce some standardised testing of pupils, increase spending to narrow the attainment gap, establish clear criteria to measure progress, and to give parents and teachers more control over schools.
Mr Swinney is seen as one of the SNP’s safest pairs of hands, a reputation that could help him deal with possible opposition from local authorities and teachers to aspects of the reform plan.
Mr Swinney’s previous role is being split, with Derek Mackay, the former transport minister, promoted to finance secretary and Keith Brown, previously infrastructure secretary, taking over a new economy portfolio.
“The cabinet I have announced today will ensure our priorities of education and the economy are given fresh impetus,” Ms Sturgeon said.
Ms Sturgeon maintained the gender balance of her first cabinet in 2014 while reshaping some roles in response to more powers over tax and social security being transferred to Scotland.
In what will be a surprise to some of her SNP colleagues, the former education secretary Angela Constance remains in the cabinet and takes over the potentially challenging responsibility for preparing for new powers to create welfare benefits and to “top up” those provided by the UK government.
Ms Constance was seen by some to have struggled in the education portfolio and suffered a car-crash moment on one of Scotland’s top political television shows when she asked if she could restart a live interview.
Ms Sturgeon’s promotion of Fergus Ewing, former business and energy minister, to secretary for rural economy will dismay proponents of unconventional gas development who saw him as a bulwark against growing opposition to fracking within the SNP.
But landowners concerned about SNP land reform plans will welcome the move to give Mr Ewing increased clout in rural affairs as he has previously hailed the economic contribution made by large country estates.
Direct responsibility for land reform and the environment goes to Roseanna Cunningham, a one-time rival of Ms Sturgeon’s for the SNP leadership who was previously secretary for fair work, skills and training.
The only two cabinet casualties — former rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead and social justice secretary Alex Neil — announced in advance they would step down.
Mr Lochhead had been targeted by opposition parties for presiding over major delays in the issue of vital EU subsidies to farmers because of government information technology failures. The UK government has also suffered IT problems with EU subsidies.
Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrat leader, said the high degree of continuity meant the new cabinet was “made up of the same old faces pushing the same old polices”.
“There is no evidence that the new government will implement a programme that is anything but utterly timid,” Mr Rennie said.
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