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Is McCabe the real McCoy?

In the first of a new series, we asked Ewan Aitken, former education spokesperson for the local authorities and former council leader in Edinburgh, to run the rule over some of his successors

inverclyde council leader Stephen McCabe does not do things by halves. Not only have he and his fellow Labour councillors regained control of the council after losing it to the Liberal Democrats, following a devastating best value report in 2003, he has also become the convener of the education committee.

Is this a sign of a lack of depth to his minority administration, I ask? "No," is his quick reply, adding that, while the education committee needs an experienced councillor at its helm, the position also allows him to set out his stall for change. It is, he says, "an attempt to show leadership on a hot issue".

McCabe remembers the Accounts Commission's best value report well. With typical understatement, he describes the ensuing press conference as "not an easy experience". But it was "a catalyst for change", he says, and the subsequent four years in opposition were an "opportunity". He adds: "We all need to take a positive attitude to external scrutiny, no matter how difficult."

For McCabe, local government's problem is that change does not come easily. "We operate within huge regulatory and funding constraints, which limit our capacity for change," he says.

When I suggest that these barriers to change are an argument for removing schools from local government control, he disagrees. "Directly elected councils are part of the accountability we need for education, and they bring local knowledge to bear," he says.

McCabe has his own brand of local knowledge, and is passionate about providing opportunities for young people: "I know the challenges the kids from the east end of Greenock and Port Glasgow face because that's where I grew up."

It's those experiences that led him to be very clear that any estate management needs to create real comprehensive schools, something he suggests the previous administration was unwilling to grasp.

He has set himself a tight timetable to achieve his vision. The education committee has already met and asked for proposals to reduce the number of secondaries in the authority from eight to six. A public consultation will follow, with decisions by October.

I suggest, from my own experience as a councillor, that this will hardly feel like real consultation. He acknowledges there will be opposition, but is confident he can carry people with him "by listening and making changes".

For McCabe, local government is about leading, but "in ways in which you seek to win arguments", not simply having a "my way or no way" attitude, as he portrays the last administration. I question whether he is acting that differently, but he argues that, after four years' opposition and being a minority administration, things have to be done differently.

McCabe is not a fan of PR, but is pragmatic. "We have to learn to work with other parties, issue by issue, almost taking the politics out of education," he says. This seems strange, coming from a man who has already spelt out his fundamental principles for estate strategy, creating proper comprehensives and developing social inclusion.

Although the social geography of his authority provides his rationale for proper comprehensives, I push him on this, suggesting that he is promoting social engineering. But he argues that his plan is about helping pupils to achieve their potential.

Achievement, he says, is complex, but there is no doubt that the learning environment is crucial. The better the learning environment, the more children will achieve and comprehensives produce that quality environment for a greater number of pupils.

McCabe's first political passion is housing. He is assistant director of the Govan Housing Association in Glasgow, while also doing the two biggest political jobs in his authority. He thinks stock transfer will get them where they need to be on housing. And once people have decent housing, the way out of poverty is a good education.

Isn't education about more than attainment, I ask? "Yes," he says, "it's about helping kids to be good citizens. But part of that is having what it takes to achieve their potential in the world of work."

He tells me: "I'm not really a politician; I'm just a community activist with a particular role."

Not one role, but many perhaps, as some may think, too big a challenge. But given what was said in 2003, something had to change and McCabe believes he is the man to make it happen.

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