19th September 2008 at 01:00

Elizabeth Maginnis, who has died from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 54, was one of the ablest, and most controversial, politicians of her generation. Although she was a local councillor in Edinburgh for 22 years, her impact on the national education stage was considerable.

As education convener of Lothian Regional Council and the new city council from 1990-99, she was an early driving force behind the council's "youth strategy" which, today, would be termed inclusion or the "more choices, more chances" initiative.

Mrs Maginnis also pushed through an intensive literacy programme for early years pupils in four primaries in the Pilton area of north Edinburgh. By 1997, one in 10 pupils was reading well above their age level; five years previously, none was. Early intervention had been born.

The story behind that development typified Mrs Maginnis's determination. She discovered the "shocking" figures of poor literacy during the highly- charged, and eventually successful, attempt to close down Ainslie Park Secondary - which she stuck with, despite the school being in her own council ward. And she insisted on exposing the literacy figures in the teeth of opposition from her officials, and took the political lead in doing something about it.

It was, however, Mrs Maginnis's educational leadership of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and her tempestuous time chairing the management side of the teachers' negotiating body that gave her national prom- inence. Her uncompromising and combative stance led to a period of hostilities with the teaching unions and, although she could be gregarious and charming, the two sides failed to establish the kind of rapport with each other so essential in successful negotiators. Despite her left-wing credentials, or perhaps because of them, the unions never warmed to her: she saw them as a privileged group hanging on to outdated practices on pay and conditions which did not serve the people she represented. An endless search for solutions ran into the sand in the "millennium review"; it would take another review, a change of government and a devolved parliament to heal the wounds.

It is difficult now to appreciate the antagonism of these times. When Mrs Maginnis accepted an invitation to speak at a General Teaching Council dinner in 1998, a prominent EIS member of the council said he was "surprised and disgusted". She commented: "For anyone who knows me, this was exactly the kind of encouragement I needed."

After falling out with a new leadership on Edinburgh City Council, she spent a relatively quiet life on its benches, apart from a sortie in 2006 when she stood unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership against Ewan Aitken.

It is a particularly cruel blow, especially for her husband Michael and their three children, that she succumbed to her final illness after a long and successful battle against cancer.

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