Aitken promises a rough ride

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
EDINBURGH has captured the key education portfolio on the local authorities' lead organisation.

Ewan Aitken, the executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council's ruling Labour "cabinet", has been nominated to fill the post on the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and his appointment is expected to be ratified next Friday.

In an interview with The TES Scotland, where he is a regular columnist, Mr Aitken lost no time in warning Labour colleagues on the Scottish Executive that they should not expect a comfortable ride. The relationship is already going through a rocky patch with local government opposition to plans for proportional representation in council elections.

Mr Aitken, an ordained Church of Scotland minister who famously gave up his preaching duties to spend more time with his politics, will be no stranger to a rocky road.

His most high-profile baptism of fire came last Christmas over the infamous "nativity play" row which saw Edinburgh forced to abandon curbs on the filming of youngsters in school plays. The council's justification that images of children could fall into the hands of paedophiles was widely seen as a politically correct overreaction.

Although only a councillor for four years, Mr Aitken quickly made his mark and within two years had joined the city council's executive as the leading spokesperson on education. His opportunity to operate on the wider Cosla canvas marks the first time Edinburgh has had a leading national voice in education since Elizabeth Maginnis blazed a trail some years ago, not to mention a few conflagrations.

Mrs Maginnis's time at Cosla was dominated by fraught, and ultimately fruitless, attempts to strike a deal with the teaching unions over pay and conditions. Mr Aitken hopes he will not have to spend the next four years in the same circumstances although, as the lead local authority negotiator, he will have to face the unions across the bargaining table next year as the current three-year pay deal comes to a close.

Mr Aitken's eyes are mainly on the blue skies issues. "There has been a local authority vacuum in the development and innovation of educational policy," he says. "I want to see Cosla drive forward policy rather than reacting and implementing - which means we will then be implementing things we have initiated."

He already has a "little list" of challenges to raise with the Executive, chief of which reflects that previous point. "If the Executive wants to be innovative in education, then it must free local authorities to be innovative because innovation only happens from the bottom up," he says.

Mr Aitken is particularly adamant that local authorities should be free to determine the best way of meeting Government priorities. "That means we should be enabled to have local outcome agreements which, for example, guarantee to deliver improvements in discipline but without tying it to targets on exclusion or being obsessed with figures.

"We have got to recognise that things are different in Banff and Brechin and Berwickshire. And we have got to be realistic about time-scales because people have to be given time to deliver."

He says he is beginning to see "positive signs from Peter (Peacock)", recognising that the Education Minister has moved in Cosla's direction by removing exclusion targets.

Less easy nuts to crack will be the Executive's policies on reducing S1-S2 class sizes in maths and English and tackling "failing" schools, on both of which Mr Aitken has major misgivings. Again his message will be the same: let the Executive set the priorities - improving numeracy and literacy in the early secondary years and tackling underperformance - but let the authorities decide on the best way to implement them.

At least Cosla's new spokes-person will have no excuses for not having his feet on the ground: his wife is a teacher and his son has just started primary school - "his local school", he emphasises.

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