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Walking with the people

Edinburgh's schools supremo has a natural calling, reports Neil Munro

"I'M one of the few politicians who has public meetings on a weekly basis."

That is how Scotland's newest and most unusual education leader, the Rev Ewan Aitken, encapsulates his double life in politics and the pulpit.

Mr Aitken was elected last week to be the "executive member for education" in Edinburgh's Labour-run administration, or education convener as it used to be called in pre-cabinet days.

His has been a meteoric rise, both in reaching the political inner circle and in acquiring a solid reputation after only two years as a councillor. With his lengthy hair, casual attire and solitary earring, Mr Aitken cuts an almost exotic figure. He is equally unusual in that he seems to have won admiration from both officials and politicians.

He certainly did himself no harm in recent months by taking on the thankless task of acting as the council's cheerleader for its pound;80 million public private partnership (PPP) project to renew some of Edinburgh's ailing school building stock.

"We have had our struggles," he says, "but it has been worth while. We have held consultations and taken people with us in a way that perhaps hasn't happened in other places.

"You have got to go where people are and that is very much my approach. I have sat in classrooms and I have taken school assemblies. You have to walk with people."

Mr Aitken cites one secondary school which is on its 10th PPP design, original sites that have been moved and room designs that have been changed. "On one occasion, I stood in a school with the head of facilities management, a dinner lady and a parent debating the shape of a kitchen," he recalls.

Mr Aitken is unapologetic about embracing PPP and, indeed, reveals that the council is planning a second round of projects. This will be even more extensive than the present one, which involves 26 schools and is due to be completed by 2003. That represents 15 per cent of Edinburgh's schools. He believes one of the strengths of the city's approach is that it covers all sectors (unlike Glasgow's PPP scheme which is for secondary schools only) and all areas.

Mr Aitkn rejects the charge of privatisation laid against PPP by its critics, particularly the SNP and the teaching unions. "The key word for me in public private partnership is not private but partnership. This means that the consortium building our schools will have to deliver to our standards.

"We have got to remember that building companies and developers have always made a profit out of building schools - I know, my Fife grandfather was one of them. Now under PPP, they have got to take responsibility for making a profit.

"I wouldn't for a minute argue that PPP is a panacea for the whole of the public sector, absolutely not. But it has a role to play as a partnership between people with a common interest. At the end of the day, everything we do has to be seen in a holistic context of enabling the potential of all children to be realised."

His other major preoccupation, of course, will be trying to manage a smooth implementation of the teachers' settlement, which confronts all the parties with a whole new set of school and local authority negotiating structures.

He has little doubt that the key to success lies with headteachers. "I firmly believe that if they let go some of their power, their authority will actually be increased and that will make them more authoritative and powerful." While he suggests relationships with many heads and their staff are good, in some cases he feels they are "a disaster".

As a Church of Scotland minister, Mr Aitken not unexpectedly emphasises the importance of developing "a sense of the spiritual" - then adds: "Whatever that might mean."

Part of what it means is a total school experience for young people, not just one dominated by an academic emphasis. "I was not academic when I was at school. But because I was good at sport, it gave me the confidence to do other things and I ended up with two degrees."

He will no doubt take that message on the tour of schools he has pledged to undertake; he has already visited 40 and wants to avoid being a "distant figurehead". Forces closer to home will probably put a stop to any such tendencies anyway - he is married to a teacher and his son has just started nursery.

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