Classic leader for hard times

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Labour veteran Jean McFadden, now in political charge of Glasgow's schools, is ready for a battle to defend them. Elizabeth Buie reports

Jean McFadden is one of the few teachers to have run the education committee of Scotland's largest council.

For council officials in Glasgow, it means they don't have to explain concepts of teaching and learning to their new committee convener - she's already on the page with them, whether from her days as a classics teacher or as a senior lecturer in law at Strathclyde University.

Curriculum for Excellence holds no terrors for her - the changes in teaching methodology should be for the better, she believes.

"But we have to make sure - and I don't think this is the intention at all - that we don't cut down on the academic rigour at Higher and Advanced Higher level. As one teacher said to me: `The laws of physics will remain the same, regardless of Curriculum for Excellence.' And in my case, the pluperfect subjunctive will remain the same."

Less than two months into the post of executive member for education, Bailie McFadden has already managed to lock horns with Education Secretary Michael Russell over his decision to "call in" a decision by Glasgow to close three city schools. She claims he has "not done his homework" on the issue and that he wants to keep one special school open that has burnt to the ground.

Mr Russell may be an experienced politician, but Bailie McFadden has been round even more political blocks than he has, having been council leader twice, city treasurer once, served on just about every council committee and been involved in factional in-fighting in Glasgow's notoriously fractious Labour group for many a year.

Some commentators suggest that years of skirmishing with Pat Lally, another Glasgow Labour veteran, may have left her with little appetite for open warfare with the SNP Government. Instead, they suggest, she may wish to emphasise her statesmanlike skills.

But there is no doubt she will defend Glasgow's education to the hilt, whether from SNP education class size policies she disagrees with or from tight financial budgets.

She has been described as a middle-class Labourite who tended to treat the city's Labour group as a class of disruptive pupils needing to be kept under control. But such a label, even if true, did not stop her campaigning for the end of selective schooling in Glasgow, early on in her career as a teacher.

"My first job was at Notre Dame High, a corporation school which was selective and fee-paying. The fees were pound;3 a term and, for that, the girls were encouraged by some staff to look down on pupils at comprehensive schools.

"I was appointed principal teacher of classics in my late 20s but became disenchanted with that part of the ethos and decided to campaign for the abolition of the school," she says.

She eventually gave up her job and was elected as a councillor in 1971 to the former Glasgow Corporation.

In those days, councillors were not paid, so she had to find another teaching job - at St Patrick's High in Coatbridge, where the headteacher, James Breen, encouraged her political ambitions and timetabled her classes to allow her to attend council meetings.

She was leader of the former Glasgow District Council from 1979 to 1986, eventually losing the leadership to arch-rival Pat Lally. At virtually the same time, she was made "surplus to requirements" as a classics teacher and decided to do a second degree, in law, at Strathclyde University.

Despite her initial fears that she would be the first student in the law school to gain a third-class honours degree, she graduated with a first and was invited to become a lecturer in constitutional and local government law.

She has also written the definitive textbook on Scottish local government law, illustrating the first with a picture of Glasgow's iconic Duke of Wellington statue with a traffic cone on his head; in the second edition, the Duke's horse also sports a traffic cone. The latter photograph has become the subject of a formal complaint to the council by someone who claims she climbed up the statue and personally placed the second cone on the horse's head; she insists she sourced the picture from the internet, but confesses to being at a loss when it comes to illustrating the forthcoming third edition of the book.

As she turns her attention to more serious matters, she warns that education will not be immune from the budget cuts the council will have to implement over the next few years.

"The cuts are worse than anything I have ever seen and I have seen lots of them, going back to the days of Mrs Thatcher when she was Prime Minister and I was the leader," she says.

If asked to draw a line in the sand and identify which non-statutory elements of the education service she would protect, she says "nurture classes", because of the impact they have had on children's lives.

She warns, however: "Teachers may have to put up with changes in their conditions in order to hold on to their jobs - it's as stark as that."

Jean McFadden: CV

Age: 68

Born: Glasgow

Educated: Hyndland Secondary and Glasgow University, where she graduated with a 1st class honours degree in classics;

First teaching job: Notre Dame High, Glasgow;

Teaching career: 1967-86;

Politics: became councillor in Glasgow Corporation in 1971; has twice been council leader (1979-86 and 1992-94); city treasurer (1986-92); president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (1990-92); chair of finance committee (2007-09); executive member for corporate governance (2009-10);

Second degree: 1st class honours degree in law, Strathclyde University, 1991;

Second career: senior lecturer in law, Strathclyde University, 1992 to the present;

Latest council position: executive member for education, June 2010.

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