The teacher's friend at Cosla

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
When he worked in West Lothian on a youth project, Alec Thomson, convener of the education and cultural services committee at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, also chaired Lothian Region Labour party. An aspiring politician by the name of Elizabeth Maginnis acted as secretary.

Mrs Maginnis went on to become education convener in Lothian and a formidable spokeswoman on education for Cosla.

More than 10 years on, Mr Thomson has once again assumed a figurehead role over Mrs Maginnis. Following local government reorganisation, the education and cultural services committee emerged to cover education, the arts, sport and leisure and recreation. Mr Thomson, education chair in Fife and a Kirkcaldy councillor, was his council's sole nomination for a top national job and was unopposed as forum convener.

Corporate thinking is very much current fashion but how the new national set-up will work in practice remains something of a mystery, since Mrs Maginnis retains her post as spokesperson on education and head of the management side of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee, while Elaine Murray from South Ayrshire will speak on cultural affairs and George Urquhart from Aberdeen handles sport.

Mr Thomson is not clear either. "It is a new structure that will evolve and it is down to the individuals concerned," he maintains. Education will, however, be the principal preoccupation. So Mrs Maginnis will be around for some time yet.

Mr Thomson hopes to break the Glasgow-Edinburgh axis by taking meetings outside the central belt, giving a more national flavour to an agenda that has in the past been dominated by the former Strathclyde and Lothian regions.

There are probably few more committed to the value of education and few better motivated to be a Labour spokesman. The 56-year-old father of four grown-up children left school in Perth with no qualifications and has sought to compensate ever since.

His curriculum vitae reads like a careers officer's options file: out of school as quickly as he could into the railways and a job as an engine cleaner and trainee fireman, off to the army for nine years where he trained as a welder, and back to Perth and a job in a textile factory.

The appeal of travel, excitement and camaraderie drew Mr Thomson to the army, but he recalls: "I was not cut out to be a soldier and I soon learnt that. I started to read when we were in Aden. It was either that or bevvy."

Back in Perth he became active in the Transport and General Workers' Union, was a local councillor and devoured books in the public library as his drive for self-improvement intensified.

This thirst for learning inspired him to go to Newbattle Abbey College, Scotland's only adult education residential college, now virtually defunct. He went home at weekends and worked as a welder during the summer to pay his way and keep his family. That confidence-building experience set him up for a social science degree at Stirling University.

"It was the nearest I ever came to freedom. You showed your face at tutorials and got your essays done," he remembers of his time between 1977-81, as he travelled between Perth and Stirling.

His first job in a second career took him to Edinburgh with Scottish Education and Action for Development, followed by a spell in Fauldhouse working with young people and a community project in Lochgelly. From that he moved on and up between 1986-90 to become a manager with Stirling district council looking after its devolved strategy in Fallin, Cowie and Plean. A similar job with Fife Region brought him responsibility for council policies in the Oakley area of Dunfermline.

He joined Kirkcaldy district council at the 1992 election, rising to chair the competitive services and personnel committees. His canniness allowed him to steer clear of the internal bickering that dogged the Labour-run administration. Politically, he is more John Prescott than Tony Blair. "You can only do so much at local level, especially when national government is starving you of resources," he says. "I used to be a strong Tribune supporter but the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher effectively changed people's perceptions."

He has not taken kindly to making cuts in Fife's education budget. "It has given me a sore heart and head," he confesses. The chairman's job was one he coveted and he has since taken early retirement to concentrate on the remit. It would be impossible otherwise, he argues.

Fife's restructuring appears as complex as Cosla's with education, enshrined within a social strategy along with social work, housing and community services. Significantly, none of the previous directors was reappointed.

With schools more or less full, there are no closure wrangles for him and like other Labour councils Fife's priorities will be early education and an attack on poverty. Even with the former region's history of testing in primaries, children continue to slip through the net. In his own council he is well thought of. "You could underestimate him at first but he is shrewd, sharp, straight and honest," one observer says.

Mr Thomson appears to be the teacher's friend. "We have to get away from blaming the teachers for everything," he says. "I am not happy with that. It is not their fault they have been starved of resources." With these views it is not surprising he has exchanged words with Helen Liddell about Labour's education plans, which have also been criticised by teacher representatives.

But at this time of year Alec Thomson has another pressing concern: to see Raith Rovers start the season impressively.

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