The ins and outs of politics

20th April 2007 at 01:00
The council elections are a chance for new faces to shine, while older ones bow out and reflect. Elizabeth Buie meets youth (left) while Neil Munro profiles experience (right)

WHEN STEVEN Purcell left school in the late 1980s, only two of his classmates moved on to university and between 70 and 80 per cent went straight onto the dole.

He was one of the lucky ones, for he had a place on a YTS training scheme at the Abbey National building society. He only entered politics full-time seven years ago.

His memories of his days at St Thomas Aquinas Secondary are dominated by the fallout from the teachers' strikes but, however demoralising secondary schooling was for the young Purcell, it managed to stir his political fervour through modern studies lessons. They encompassed Nelson Man-dela's imprisonment, the domination of Central American countries by dictators propped up by the US government, and the upsurge of emotion that accompanied Live Aid.

Because of his teenage experiences, the 34-year-old leader of Glasgow City Council counts himself as one of Thatcher's children. His calm demeanour becomes more animated as he describes the mid to late 1980s as "probably the worst time to be at school or living in Glasgow, when every other family seemed to be out of work".

Perhaps it is that legacy which drives him to try to lift Glasgow's standing and make it an economic powerhouse. But the former education convener knows that unless he can improve the reputation and output of the city's schools and work-based training, he will not be able to attract the inward investment and expansion he strives for.

Every time Councillor Purcell speaks to employers or potential investors in Glasgow, he is asked about the city's educational vision. For that reason, he is concentrating on doubling the number of modern apprenticeships provided by the council. He also knows that employers want school leavers to have better "soft skills".

His specific election pledge for the Labour Party in the local elections is to guarantee every school leaver a place in employment, training, or further education.

But the council leader also wants to prioritise the early years. One of his first acts as education convener was to offer a safety net to the nurture classes for vulnerable pupils that had been piloted in 17 primaries. They were due to fold because the budget was not going to be extended, but newspaper headlines and the personal experience of a friend whose child had benefited from nurture groups in early primary, made him force the council into a U-turn. Nurture class provision has more than tripled.

Councillor Purcell argues that the decision earlier this year to merge education and social work services into one department was not financially motivated, but driven by the belief that integrating these services would prevent children from falling through the net. The so-called "one-file child" - where education, health, and social services staff have equal access to information - will soon be a reality, he claims.

But to achieve this, he wants to set up five operational areas in which community health, social services and education professionals work together in various locations, including schools.

The recent decision to take culture and leisure services out of council control and turn them into a trust was controversial with the unions, concerned about the impact on staff conditions and services. It has prompted speculation that other departments might be in for similar reform.

A more immediate priority for Labour in the city if the party forms the council administration - and there is no guarantee that will happen under the new voting system - will be grappling with the recommendations of the council's education commission. It was set up by Councillor Purcell to tackle some of the problems endemic in schools.

The commission has delayed its report until after the election to prevent it becoming an electoral football. Mr Purcell has no doubt about the challenge its sweeping agenda represents: "The schools producing the next generation of school leavers will determine how successful the city is.

That is why our commitment to vocational training has got to be as high as our commitment to increasing the numbers of young people that go into FEor HE."

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