A class of their own

6th April 2007 at 01:00
Teaching can be a good grounding for aspiring politicians, some of the candidates tell Fiona MacLeod - while Willis Pickard, opposite, outlines the new voting system and the new shape of councils likely to emerge from the local government elections

NEARLY A third of the 129 members of the former Scottish Parliament have experience of teaching, with 31 holding a professional teaching qualification. A further eight have taught or lectured in colleges.

Despite the common belief that Parliament is awash with lawyers, there are only 12 MSPs who have a legal background, barely a third of those who have taught.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, is widely known as being a former maths teacher, as were the now-departed Independent MSP Dennis Canavan, Labour's Frank McAveety and the SNP's Alasdair Morgan.

Now the election campaign has begun in earnest, others are hoping to follow in their footsteps.

Edinburgh teacher Liz Smith is giving up her part-time job teaching economics and modern studies at George Watson's College to stand as a Conservative candidate in Perth. As number two on the Tories' Mid Scotland and Fife list, she has a realistic chance of making it to Holyrood.

She taught at the school for 15 years before leaving to work with George Watson's old boy and former secretary of state for Scotland, Malcolm Rifkind. Later she returned to the school. For her, politics has been a life-long interest. "It has always been at the back of my mind," she says.

"I'm very interested in why people take the decisions they take, politically."

Passionate about extra-curricular activities, Ms Smith has coached youngsters in cricket, hockey, tennis, and squash: "I have a genuine interest in seeing youngsters taking part in activities, to help them develop as rounded individuals," she says.

Her up-to-date experience of the classroom convinces her that Conservative policy is right for Scottish education. "We want to put more power into head-teachers' hands.

"Our Scottish leader Annabel Goldie is absolutely right when she says there should be a new education act which gives heads the right to exclude pupils permanently, more control over their own budget, and more flexibility over the curriculum both inside and outside the classroom."

Teaching, she believes, has provided a good background for becoming a politician. "It is very important to be out in the real world. We do have a social responsibility, particularly in teaching, to expose youngsters to different interests and new thinking."

Another teacher pinning on her rosette and bracing her knuckles for knocking on doors is Gillian Cole-Hamilton, 29. She is representing the Liberal Democrats in Edinburgh East and Mussel-burgh, and is third on her party's Lothian list. She too believes her job, as an infant teacher at St Ninian's Primary in Edinburgh, provides a useful background and has given her the opportunity to discover wider parental concerns.

"I am often a port of call for parents who view schools as part of a system where they can seek advice on many issues, sometimes unrelated to education," she says.

Mrs Cole-Hamilton's focus is the Liberal Democrat emphasis on young people and social justice, which she suggests makes the party best for Scottish education. "Teachers, already interested in contributing to society and helping people, are attracted to political life as it is an extension of many of the skills developed in teaching. Teaching, like politics, involves presenting new concepts and acting in the best interests of individuals."

History teacher Kay Barnett will stand in Banff and Buchan against the sitting SNP member Stewart Stevenson. The Fraserburgh Academy teacher has been involved in politics since the 1970s, and joined the Labour Party while at university. "It doesn't surprise me that there are so many former teachers in the Scottish Parliament, because the type of person you will find committed to teaching is often also committed to social justice and community values," she says.

As a member of the national council of the EIS, Mrs Barnett's priorities mirror those of the union - smaller class sizes, more nursery teachers, early intervention and the involvement of teachers in planning for change (such as the curriculum reforms).

Being a teacher, she feels, will be a good preparation for the world of politics, as the communication skills required in teaching are essential in politics: "Being aware of people's needs and doing what you can to help people raise their aspirations are similar in both professions."

Dave Petrie, Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP, and former maths teacher, is another who agrees the classroom has been a good preparation for the political debating chamber.

"It is about communication," he says. "You can be asked more awkward questions by children than by politicians - children can really put you on the spot sometimes. Going into a classroom of 30 kids, and having to control that classroom, has proved useful in politics."

West Lothian College business lecturer Marion Fellows is taking on a brave fight: challenging First Minister Jack McConnell in his Motherwell and Wishaw constituency as SNP candidate. She moved into teaching after a career in business and having children, but has become increasingly involved in politics, after stints on the communityJcouncil, parent teacher association, and EIS where she served as a branch convener.

"I have always taken an interest in people, and what affects their lives,"

she says. "I have never been someone who just sat and moaned - this is my chance to do something."

Lecturing has been a good preparation for politics, she feels. "I think it isJa great communication medium, teaching. In further education, we have to be able to communicate with people of all ages and, as a teacher, you have to organise yourself and other people, as in politics.

"Nationalist policies, such as a greater focus on Scottish historyJ and an expansion of vocational education, should prove attractive. I have a special interest in further education and the SNP would bring it back under the education remit rather than lifelong learning."

It is not just teachers that schools are providing as candidates. Charlotte Cameron from Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway is barely out of the classroom herself. Taking advantage of the legislation which allows 18 year olds to stand for the first time, the teenager, who now lives in Glasgow's Maryhill, will stand as a candidate for the Scottish Socialist Party on the South of Scotland list.

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