Would-be MPs in a class of their own

30th April 2010 at 01:00
Teachers balancing the classroom and the election campaign trail to find out what they have to offer

At the last British general election in 2005, 47 school teachers took up seats on the green benches of Westminster; when Tony Blair came to office in 1997 declaring his priorities to be "education, education, education", the number was even higher at 65.

This year looks set to be no different, with Scotland's four main parties all having former teachers contesting seats and hoping to join the many other teachers who have already entered the political fray.

Simon Hutton, the Liberal Democrats' candidate for Inverclyde, completed his probationary period in East Renfrewshire last year. He now teaches science at Gourock High, balancing commitments to his pupils with the rigours of an arduous campaign. Although there was some respite with the election being called in the Easter break, things are a lot tougher in term time.

"It is difficult when you are getting the kids ready for exams," he says. "My headteacher has been quite sympathetic, but I won't be getting two or three weeks off because you have a duty to the kids, who must come first."

Kaukab Stewart, standing for the SNP in Chancellor Alistair Darling's Edinburgh South West seat, agrees. She has worked in primary schools across the city for the past 17 years, as well as having stood twice at previous elections, and concedes that the two do not always make an easy combination.

"It's been very difficult," she says. "You need to be quite fit mentally and physically. I love teaching and love being around the kids, and that's not to be jeopardised."

Ms Stewart regards her current and potential careers as "not that far apart": communicating with an audience and being prepared to speak to a room full of people you have never met before are key skills in both jobs, she says.

Mr Hutton is newer to the profession than he is to politics, having been involved before graduating with a PGDE in physics and science from Glasgow University. But he too believes the need to engage with parents in his career is a helpful asset in political life.

"Teachers have communication skills, as do politicians, and there is a lot of overlap," he says. "Writing a leaflet and writing a worksheet have quite a lot in common."

The same is true of forward planning. Ms Stewart counts her diary among her most valuable assets at election time and considers the preparation for a campaign as not that different from organising her school schedule.

"You need to have good time-management skills, lots of planning ahead and a teaching planner like the one I use at school," she says.

But the similarities don't end there. Being accustomed to spending time with parents who are concerned about their child's education is not dissimilar to speaking to constituents worried about the closure of facilities or the scaling back of local services, Mr Hutton says.

"Parents' consultation nights will have an effect similar to political surgeries," he explains. "Parents come and ask questions about their children and about any problems, and that is the same with surgeries."

These parallels also ring true for Barney Crockett, Labour's candidate in Orkney. He may have been out of teaching for nearly two decades, but still acknowledges the similarities between his old career as headteacher of Farr High in the far reaches of Sutherland, and his current job as a councillor in Aberdeen.

"People will obviously think you have experiences from meeting people," he says. "But a lot of it is about taking the kind of hard questions you get as a teacher which will be particularly relevant at the next election."

The expenses scandal has shattered trust in politicians, something that clearly angers Mr Hutton. As many as 150 MPs - almost a quarter - won't be standing this time around; many after revelations of extortionate claims were met with fierce disapproval from constituents and party leaders.

"If you were doing that at your school, you would be sacked within a day," he says. "Politicians are seen as out of touch with people, and that means you want others with experience in normal jobs."

This lack of trust means that integrity and respect have become buzz words for candidates. The Conservatives' candidate for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, Alistair Graham, runs a family-owned school in the south of England, and believes he has acquired attributes through his work that will help regain public trust.

"In the classroom, you learn very early on that if you are asked a question to which you do not know the answer, you must never try to bluff - no child respects that," he says.

Whatever the new face of politics after next Thursday, all four candidates are clear that their educational background is an advantage. The lessons of the profession - quite literally - not only put them in a position to understand the challenges of engaging with a diverse public, but also allow them to impart some of the wisdom they deliver every day.

Mr Graham believes that "as a teacher and parent, I have always taught that in life you should set your sights high and do something you feel strongly about. I have talked about service to the community and putting something back into society. Here is a chance to put myself to the test."

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