In at the deep end

21st September 2007 at 01:00
ISABEL HUTTON is an unknown quantity but not for much longer.

Ms Hutton, who was only elected as a councillor for the first time in May, has found herself in one of the biggest jobs in local government.

The 45-year-old SNP member for Armadale, Blackridge, Westfield and Torphichen, in West Lothian, is the new Cosla spokeswoman for education, children and young people. The vast experience of the previous incumbent underlines the size of the challenge she faces: Ewan Aitken was leader of Edinburgh City Council and a combative figure unafraid to grapple with contro-versial issues in the public eye.

Ms Hutton is good company talkative but a good listener, lacking in pomposity, and not proud to admit that she has a lot to learn. She can also draw on years of use- ful experience.

Until her election success in May, she had worked since 1999 as a parliamentary assistant for MSP Fiona Hyslop, who has taken up a high-profile role of her own. Ms Hutton believes her former boss has made good her first few months as Cabinet Secretary for Education, and admits it is not unhelpful to have such an eminent contact.

Yet she does not mimic the policy statements of her former boss.

The SNP has made much of its determination to drive down class sizes in the early years of education. But she believes pupil-teacher ratios should not be seen as a panacea for young people's problems. "You can get carried away with how many teachers there are," she says.

She underlines that the needs of vulnerable, individual children, such as those with Asperger's Syndrome, cannot be met by a one-size-fits-all approach.

Before devolution, Ms Hutton worked for 10 years as a housing officer for Edinburgh. "You would be dealing with some of the most vulnerable people," she says. "You would be housing 16-year-old adults just leaving children's homes or foster care."

Her two sons, 15 and 21, give her direct knowledge of topical issues affecting young people. Her elder son, for example, still lives at home. "He can't afford to leave," she says. "He can come in at any time and say, 'I've got no money', and I can help him out. But what about the kids who don't have that?"

She cares deeply about the issues of vulnerable youngsters, because "a lot of these kids don't have a voice", and believes that councils should share this conviction. "It's looking at how you deal with looked-after children and accepting responsibility as a corporate parent."

She concedes that, despite her passion for young people's rights, there are some areas where she has a lot to learn and one big one in particular. On education policy she is less forthright, admitting that she is still feeling her way on the issues. (She does, however, profess frustration that the pride parents and communities take in their schools is not often associated with the hard work of local authorities.)

That diffidence is understandable, given her inexperience in the sector; even in her role at West Lothian Council, she does not have a direct education brief she is the authority's executive councillor for social policy. Perhaps as a result, it appears unlikely that she will lead negotiations with unions on the teachers' agreement, although she is expected to play some role.

When Ms Hutton meets with The TESS, she is flanked by a press officer, a policy manager and a team leader. They are keen to help her make conciliatory noises about education matters, but she does not feel the need to compensate for inexperience with bluster. Indeed, her winning lack of hubris should help get people on her side as she finds her way.

Cards on the table

Pay is expected to dominate talks between Cosla and teachers' representatives when they meet in the coming months for negotiations over the teachers' agreement.

Drew Morrice, joint secretary of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers, said unions would be striving to retain the salary values established in the 2001 agreement.

But Mr Morrice also expects talks over job-sizing, collegiality, and the effectiveness of national and local bargaining mechanisms.

Some more specialised issues will also be on the table, including the working hours and annual leave of quality improvement officers and educational psychologists.

Mr Morrice stressed that it is not yet clear whether a single year or a multi year deal is likely to emerge.

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