City's education leader says tough start won't stop her trying

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THE rest of the world can relax. There may well be three versions of Risk, the global domination board game under Marilyne MacLaren's bookcase, but as it's taken her 22 years to get to power in Edinburgh, it's likely she's content to stay put.

It was 1986 when she won the Sciennes and Marchmont ward by just ten votes for the Alliance Party. Since then her majority has grown, her party name has changed and her local victories have included the new James Gillespie's primary school and the bulbs planted in the Meadows.

But with the shift in power at the City Chambers last May, MacLaren has gone from being on the sidelines to convener of the Education, Children and Families committee.

Hers is a diverse and challenging role and one which could leave lesser minds confused. And if you're not confused before you meet Councillor MacLaren, you certainly leave feeling bemused – and a little sorry for her.

In the last ten months, she says, she has been "shocked" by abuse from parents opposed to school closures, has suffered "betrayal" at the hands of her coalition partners, was nigh-on bullied into announcing the plan to shut 22 schools, and has felt "overwhelmed" by the task in front of her.

It's emotional language – not the kind you would expect from a seasoned politician. So is she out of her depth? Is she as "clueless" as she's been portrayed?

"Absolutely not," she retorts, sitting by the roaring fire in the home study of her rather grand Wester Coates Terrace house. "I am doing a job I always wanted. The problem is I didn't come into politics to start saying that we have to shut schools and cut this and cut that. But that's what we're having to do because of the financial mess we've been left by the previous administration."

She is talking about the 15 million deficit in the department's budget. It was this that led to the proposed school closures.

"It was a very desperate situation. I was being told to balance the books, to make savings, that we had to close schools," she says. "It's absolutely not the case the council was left with 52m reserves. They (Labour] are lying. The director of finance told me it was the worst financial state he's seen.

"Two days after being put in position I was shown the media strategy for closing 22 schools starting in June. I had to fight hard not to go there, so we didn't start the process until August. Then I was told 'you've got to close nurseries at Christmas'. There was an enormous amount of pressure.

"I did feel overwhelmed. I was terribly pressured by officials."

Yet it was her coalition partners, the SNP, not she, who refused to give the plans their backing. "We were betrayed by the SNP," she asserts. "I was so angry. It took the group a long time to decide whether we could still work with them but there's a growing respect between both groups now."

However, she is still seeking respect when it comes to parents and teachers after the debacle. She admits the strong parental reaction to the idea took her aback.

"You are never going to get parents of a school which is going to close to agree with you. When it's your child you're wary of change. I understand that so when you're talking of closing or merging schools it's important to point out the positives. But the whole thing has been very unpleasant. That's the one thing that's shocked me – the nastiness of some parents. I've had a lot of personal abuse."

But rather than the way the closure announcement was handled, MacLaren blames the old administration and its lack of public consultation on issues for the flack she's received. "They were poor at consultation and as a result nobody believed it when we said we would consult on school closures," she says. "What parents hate is not being listened to. If the decision goes against them, if they feel you've bothered to listen to them, they will accept the decision.

"I'm pleased that we're doing things my way now. There's a forum of all the stakeholders looking at the criteria for closing schools. I think the professionals feel that we have to do it, but there will be public consultation.

"I am prepared to pull back and not go forward if convinced closure is not in the interest of children."

When pressed if that could mean no closures at all, she nods. "If we don't close any, then so be it. We'll just be poorer that's all."

The plans to build five new schools could also see the council poorer, or pupils worse off, if the Scottish Government doesn't agree to fund the 130m needed.

The "Wave Three" feasibility studies on Portobello, James Gillespie's and Boroughmuir high schools, St John's Primary and St Crispin's Special School are due to be sent to Holyrood this month, but again MacLaren says she'll wait until the parents and schools are content with the proposals.

These schools are all in reasonably affluent areas, and not just MacLaren, but the Lib Dems as a whole, have been accused of not caring about the city's areas of deprivation. This is why, it's been suggested, areas like Craigmillar, Wester Hailes, and Royston and Wardieburn have been top of the list when it comes to closures.

"That's nonsense," she erupts. "I have been in north Edinburgh more than anywhere else since May. There are a lot of exciting things happening there. We will not leave deprived areas empty of schools but parents in these areas want their children out of these run down, empty schools.

"I think the way forward is to have larger campuses with excellent facilities in these areas. Royston and Wardieburn for instance will have a merged campus with a community centre there too."

While MacLaren seems backwards at coming forwards over taking the tough decision on school closures, she's more robust on the changes needed to make her department more efficient.

"The department is overstaffed and overmanaged so we will be restructuring. We're going to get it slim and more efficient.

"We want to give more power to the headteachers who are feeling demotivated because of being overmanaged."

So ten months in, does she look at the opposition benches and wish she was back there?

"I'm happy doing what I'm doing," she says. "I have felt very bitter and resentful about the position I have been put in and I'll be happier once we get through this. There are lots of interesting ideas I'm working on. It's a marvellous opportunity to make a difference."