All change from the Castle to the glens;Election '99;Holyrood

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Neil Munro looks at Scotland's 'forgotten elections'and bids farewell to two long-serving education leaders


BOWING OUT after almost 10 years as Lothian's and then Edinburgh's influential education convener, Elizabeth Maginnis has made little secret of her desire to step into the finance convener's job. Short of becoming Lord Provost, it would be the only council post of comparable stature.

But the teaching unions' sighs of relief at getting rid of a turbulent presence may dissolve into groans. As finance convener, Mrs Maginnis could be even more influential.

Her reputation as the hammer of the teachers, more a result of her rumbustious tongue than of her actions, stems largely from her leadership of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities' education committee and of the management side in the pay negotiations. Many otherwise sane union voices become apoplectic at the very mention of her name.

Some of them believe Mrs Maginnis is simply anti-teacher, although her admirers prefer to see her as pro-children. Others say that, beneath the cheerful persona and bouts of charm, lies a hopeless negotiator. Mrs Maginnis has certainly made little secret of her impatience with the Educational Institute of Scotland in particular. She believes the union's leadership lacks courage to go the extra mile in negotiations. There has been genuine incomprehension on both sides.

Courage is something Edinburgh's outgoing education convener values. She has probably more right to demand it from others since her most difficult early battle was defending the closure of Ainslie Park Secondary in her own council ward. But it was Ainslie Park that indirectly helped her make a different mark, as evidence emerged that children were arriving from primary unable to read and write. This led to the pioneering Pilton early intervention scheme. The rest is history.

Mrs Maginnis has never been modest about her talents, believing she has made a real difference to schools and pupils. Apart from the Pilton scheme, she can point to an early commitment to nursery education and to her youth strategy which tries to contain problem pupils within education. All later became fashionable.

Although defeated in selection contests for Westminster and Holyrood, Mrs Maginnis is not one of life's backbenchers. She may yet end up with more financial clout in Scotland's capital city than Edinburgh's parliamentarians wield in Scotland.


THERE WAS a rare experience for Val MacIver when she presided over her final meeting last month after 11 years as Highland's education chairman - a standing ovation. It certainly reflected Mrs MacIver's standing. But there was also perhaps recognition - even guilt - that she had to take the flak for some unpopular decisions, principally over school closures, on behalf of a council whose hard-pressed finances were the other dominating issue.

Highland's battles over closures were particularly emotional and personal, as the death of a school was often portrayed as the death of villages. Mrs MacIver did not shelter behind officials as she faced parental anger, attending innumerable public meetings as she criss-crossed the vast 10,000 square miles that is the council's territory.

There were occasions when council policy tested her patience, forcing her to declare pointedly in a 1992 closures row that she at least would not "run scared".

It was none the less rationalisation that placed Mrs MacIver in the unenviable position of losing one of only two schools in Scotland to have opted out from council control, Dornoch Academy, and of very nearly losing another, Fort William primary, until the 1997 general election intervened.

Mrs MacIver was actually defeated over the Dornoch argument which sparked the opt-out vote. She favoured upgrading the two-year secondary to a four-year school. Fatefully, the full council rejected this proposal in January 1993 by one vote. In public, however, she defended the decision and went on to belie her Tory past by combative assaults on the opt-out policy.

It was small wonder, therefore, that Mrs MacIver took time to celebrate good news - 13 new primaries and three new secondaries completed under her chairmanship in addition to one secondary under construction.

She has also come close - largely through the renewal of Government interest in pre-school education - to achieving what she described in 1990 as her "lifelong ambition" to see a nursery in every community. More ambitious still has been her dogged pursuit of a University of the Highlands and Islands, maintained despite official indifference until Michael Forsyth, the former Secretary of State, saw the light just before the 1997 election.

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