Together we can achieve great things

9th May 2003 at 01:00
The political process needs to be about lives and communities, not numbers and statistics, says Ewan Aitken

AM writing this three days before polling day. I have just spent several hours in the pouring rain trying to persuade people to vote for my party.

This is the first time I have stood as a sitting candidate. It has been a real insight into the dysfunctional relationship between voter and political aspirant.

The expectation is that I will say what I have done for the people so they should vote for me. My way of working has been not to do things for others but to enable people to do things for themselves. That is the task of anyone who wants to lead, especially at community level. The powerful need to give up power. Then they shall have great influence.

In the past four years I have been involved in 24 local groups and other agencies, including five new projects that I set up. If I go to those people and say, "look what I have done for you", they would, quite rightly, reply: "No, we did it ourselves. You told us we did!"

We build society on community. Community is built on having a common purpose. Our political process does not encourage community building. All of us, not just politicians, have created the myth that politicians can deliver answers to what are perceived to be society's problems. Because of the nature of those problems, these answers cannot deliver change. Then we are disappointed.

Policies have become simplistic answers to society's ills rather than a vision for how society might be. By expecting others to "deliver", we remove ourselves from any collective responsibility for the problems in the first place or the consequences of those attempted answers. That, more than anything, has been the defining factor in the disengagement of the public in the political process. Not that one policy or another has not delivered but because they cannot be answers to the question that really need to be asked: how are we to be as a society?

Take the debate on education. Education reflects a decision that creating school communities is the best way of nurturing the potential of our young people. Meeting the needs of young people on a journey of self-discovery and the fight against poverty of opportunity cannot be articulated in cash or other statistical sound bites.

Education needs a much more complex and holistic approach focusing on each child as an individual whose needs are nurtured by interacting with and learning alongside their peers in their community. To achieve this sense of educational community, we need to redraw completely the relationships between the professionals involved. It means creating radically different communication methods between professions even if that means supposed confidentialities being "breached".

It means discriminating in favour of the poor and the marginalised. It means empowering schools to make their own decisions. It means completely changing our understanding of success, making it child-centred, not number-focused.

Instead, the debate is about numbers of teachers, class sizes and discipline in classrooms. Arguments about funding mechanisms dominate discussions on new schools instead of design and sustainability for, and by, young people. Some policies use words like "failing". Others talk of delivering things "free". Neither is true nor helpful.

If we begin our debate by talking of failure, we will fail. And nothing is free. We may remove the cost for some at the point of delivery in the fight against poverty, but someone pays and those who can should. A "one size fits all" policy rarely favours the poor.

As a result, teachers constantly get the blame for society's ills when all that has happened is that we have more numbers thrown at the wrong problem.

Even my own party's excellent aspiration of 90 per cent budget autonomy for headteachers, which Edinburgh is within 6 per cent of achieving, does not really articulate why that is a good idea. It is seen as attractive only because it is a bigger number than anyone else is using.

Politics needs to rediscover its roots, which are about people's lives - just as education needs to be about pupils' needs, not the statistics schools produce. The answer lies in a place somewhere between politicians no longer talking in numbers and the people rediscovering that the answers lie in their hands. Together we can achieve great things.

Meanwhile, has it stopped raining yet?

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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