'Wham! She is one sharp cookie'

19th March 2010 at 00:00

Karen Whitefield, convener of the Scottish Parliament's education, lifelong learning and culture committee, is a quietly spoken blonde who is always flawlessly made-up.

It would be easy to underestimate Ms Whitefield, says one regular attendee at the education committee. But it would be unwise. "She can lure people in, and then out of this meringue of easy-osy softness - wham! She's one sharp cookie."

It is a talent noted in past TESS reports. In the Holyrood column she was once described as "Karen - kerunch! - Whitefield", because "she reels in opponents with her mumsy manner, then strikes".

She proved a match for former Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop, with whom she locked horns on a number of occasions.

Donald Gunn MacDonald, vice-president of the defunct Scottish School Board Association, also found out who was in charge when, giving evidence to the committee, he used the term "white settlers" to describe wealthy southerners who choose to populate the Highlands. Ms Whitefield homed in on the remark, calling it "offensive"; the next time he wanted to contribute, he asked for permission to speak.

And then there are the other committee members. Ms Whitefield does not shy away from keeping them on topic and in line.

Managing "the personalities" is the hardest thing about convening the committee, she says, choosing her words carefully.

Ms Whitefield has been at the helm since 2007. In the main, the committee has spent its time scrutinising government policy, since many of the SNP's key pledges - smaller class sizes and free school meals, for instance - came within its remit.

But she is hopeful that its investigation into whether schools should be removed from council control, launched last month, will give the committee the opportunity to "add value".

Like many committee members, she is passionate about education. In her early teens she thought primary teaching was the career for her, but later switched to politics, motivated to do something about the lack of opportunity she witnessed on her own doorstep.

Ms Whitefield was one of just a handful of pupils to go on to university from Calderhead High in Shotts in the 1980s. This spurred her on to become an MSP, she says.

"That always struck me as a great injustice," she says, of the low numbers who went into jobs or training after they left school. "Young people in Shotts were no less able - they just didn't have the same chances or the confidence to believe they could do these things."

She bucked the trend, she believes, because of the influence of her parents, who ran a hotel and the local newsagent's, and an inspirational English teacher, Janet Mackie.

"She was very passionate about encouraging people to do better, to try different things and to challenge themselves," she says.

But politics was also in Ms Whitefield's blood. She was just nine when she worked on her first election campaign - her great-aunt was Peggy Herbison, the former MP for Lanarkshire North, and member of Harold Wilson's 1960s governments.

"My job was to hold the microphone for her while she was driving round the streets telling people through the loudspeaker to come out and vote Labour," she recalls.

Then, as a student at Glasgow Caledonian University, she won an English- Speaking Union internship to work on Capitol Hill in Washington for a Democrat senator.

"Nelson Mandela had just been released and he visited the US that summer," she says. "I got to see him when he made his address."

After university, she had a short spell as a civil servant but she had been bitten by the politics bug, so the job didn't last.

In May 1999, after a period working as PA to Rachel Squire, the former Labour MP for Dunfermline West, she was elected to the Scottish Parliament.

She is still passionate about education, but worried about what the future holds.

"At high school in the 1980s, there was a lot of industrial unrest and unhappiness, and teachers faced considerable challenges," she says. "My fear is that, while there has been great investment in education since devolution, once again it may not be given the priority it deserves."

emma.seith@tes.co.uk.

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