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Honesty is her policy

In the third of our series profiling education conveners across Scotland, Ewan Aitken, former education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, speaks to Janice Annal about the Orkney way of handling politics

JANICE ANNAL'S husband Cyril used to be councillor for South Ronaldsay. As such, he was heavily involved in the council's response to the island's infamous child sex abuse case in 1991, which led to a major public inquiry. However, it was insights she gained from his experiences of that time, and encouragement from friends, that led her to stand in a by-election in 1996 for Papdale and join her husband in the chamber.

"I'm not a political animal," she says, "but I like being involved in making decisions that affect people. I thought I could do good for folk."

Despite her protestations, she clearly has some political nous, as she managed to be elected chair of the education committee within 18 months of her election to a council whose membership is entirely without party affiliation.

That means, according to Annal, persuading your colleagues that you are the best person for the job without making promises you can't keep. For her, that means sometimes telling folk what they don't want to hear. Prior to her re appointment as education con- vener, some councillors had asked her for a commitment that she wasn't prepared to make. Instead, she said simply that she would make sure they had all the facts before a decision was reached. Her honesty got their vote.

Her husband is no longer a councillor, but for eight years they worked together, though in the independent tradition of island councils, that didn't mean they always agreed.

"I didn't even sit next to him," she says, "and I certainly didn't always vote with him." She also says, however, that her husband encouraged her promotion, perhaps even to the detriment of his own political progress.

An entirely independent council makes for a very different decision-making process from my much more heavily politicised experience. Annal agrees and cites a recent example where her vice-convener led a move to oppose her on a particular issue and she lost the vote. For her, that was not a sign of weakness. She argues: "He's entitled to his view and if that view prevails, it's my job to support it."

I suggest that makes strategic planning much more difficult. She agrees, but says things are improving greatly. She quotes former council convener Hugh Halcro-Johnstone's comment that Orkney Islands Council was "made up of 21 parties", but goes on to argue that the recent prioritisation by the council of housing, transport and care for the elderly was a sign of progress in strategic decision-making.

When I challenge her that the list doesn't include education, she counters with the comment that education is already good, though it could improve, whereas these three areas need much greater improvement to reach the quality of service she thinks Orkney schools already deliver.

For Annal, combining education, recreation and culture in one department explains in part why things like participation in expressive arts among young Orcadians is blossoming. "Not that we are without our problems," she is quick to add. Crime and drug abuse may be low, but there is poverty and alcohol abuse.

I take up that issue about size, pointing out that the population of my ward is nearly that of her entire authority. She is unimpressed. "It's geography. You might be able to walk the length of your ward in half an hour, but you can only get from one end of my authority to the other in a day if the timetables are right."

For Annal, part of the rationale for island authorities like hers is to protect island and, in particular, family life. That's why she is against closing even the smallest of island schools. "You wouldn't put a five-year-old on a ferry every morning in all weathers. It's not just cost, it's protecting something even more valuable."

Being small does cause difficulties in capacity, especially when money is distributed per pupil. Sometimes the authority only gets the equivalent of a few hours a week of a new post to deliver a national strategy. Annal wants the Scottish Executive to agree a basic unit cost before any pro-rata calculations.

She remains hopeful that the last administration's commitments for funding new buildings will be kept by the SNP. "The signs are good," she says, "especially with our hybrid trustpublic private partnership proposal which they seem to like."

Janice Annal's decision-making may reflect her independent roots but, despite its lack of a party label, it still has a political core.

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