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Always in the eye and eager to make a bigger splash

Neil Munro surveys the progress of a new council which aims to make innovation a way of life. Lanarkshire is seldom out of the news. Be it triumph or disaster, Chungwa or Ravenscraig, it is always in the public eye. North Lanarkshire education authority is keen to keep up the tradition and is seriously anxious to make a splash.

A council with a Pounds 158 million education budget and 170 schools is certainly big enough to make an impact. Indeed it is almost guaranteed with the blend of energy injected by Michael O'Neill, the director of education, and the experience of Charles Gray, the education committee chairman.

Although it is the fourth most populous local authority, Mr O'Neill likes to think of his domain as the second largest with more schools than Fife and more pupils than Edinburgh. It will also be, according to Mr Gray, "an ideas authority".

It is actually rather difficult to keep Mr O'Neill away from ideas and, since April, he has been setting a cracking pace - but always, he hopes, taking the schools and parents with him. He and his directorate team have certainly been keen to let schools see what they look like and, as they "walk the talk, " it is unlikely that North Lanarkshire's staffrooms and classrooms will ever echo to cries of "Michael Who?" The director stresses the particular importance of talking to class teachers not just headteachers during these visits. "There is no point in preaching the virtues of partnership between the authority and the schools if you don't get out into the classrooms and staffrooms, talking to teachers and talking to pupils. But it's hard work, in terms of physically getting round the schools: you have got to spend two to three hours in a school to do it properly."

Officials are pledged to visit every school at least once a year, a challenge for a top team of just nine people. But tall order or not, the visits have helped Mr O'Neill in his priority task for the education department which has been, in fact, setting priority tasks for the next three years. The draft plan is likely to be approved for consultation this month in time for an official Christmas birth.

The official motto is "Aiming Higher in North Lanarkshire", the same kind of pleasing ambiguity that brought you Higher Still, implying that schools are delivering but that laurels are not just for resting on.

North Lanarkshire will aim higher via an eight-pronged "pledge" (no mission statement here). It is directed at improving learning and teaching, raising achievement and realising potential, encouraging lifelong learning, working with communities for a better future, listening and learning together, celebrating success, respecting the dignity and value of all, and giving pupils and staff a safe, happy and attractive place to work.

For a council which presides over the greatest concentrations of deprivation outside Glasgow (by the Scottish Office's own "poverty index"), it comes as no surprise to find that raising achievement and lifelong learning are at the top of the list of challenges. The authority has gone an unusual step further and dedicated a post of "achievement officer" held by Alison Cameron. Equally significantly, she is housed in a section entitled "policy development and performance management".

Mr O'Neill stresses the importance of seeing achievement in the round. "Too often in the past we have had policies on social strategy, equal opportunities, anti-racism, supported study and they were all developed in isolation from one another. But they are all essentially about the same thing, which is maximising potential and raising people's self-esteem. So we hope therefore to have a more coherent approach instead of a policy which nobody knows anything about. "

The council also has a dedicated parent officer and parents will also be brought on to North Lanarkshire's policy sounding board. There has already been a parent conference, held in March, and one result of that was the formation of an 18-member parents' consultation group. This will not be restricted to the curriculum as its Strathclyde forebear was and Michael O'Neill believes it will also be a superior alternative to having token parents on the education committee which, in any case, found little support at the March conference.

Schools will be brought into the decision-making process too, Mr O'Neill pledges. He already has a well practised mantra on "partnership with schools" - community not conflict, co-operation not competition, empowerment with accountability, development planning with quality assurance, appraisal.

In pursuit of these ideals, North Lanarkshire has set up an elaborate structure. Seven area forums will bring together separate primary and secondary groups from Wishaw, Motherwell, Bellshill, Airdrie, Coatbridge, Cumbernauld and ChrystonKilsyth.

Their deliberations will be considered by a 10-strong North Lanarkshire joint development planning steering group; its membership will come from the directorate, the four heads who are the chairs and vice-chairs of the primary and secondary forums, one pre-five head and one special school head.

Mr O'Neill stresses that these groups will not be confined to the curriculum either but will also be exposed to the delights of the budget-making process each year.

Mr O'Neill, who saw service in Strathclyde's Lanark and Dunbarton divisions, hopes he has created a directorate structure that avoids the strategicoperational divide which plagued many of the regional education authorities. Each of his three senior chiefs - Jim McGuinness, the head of support for learning, Dan Sweeney, the head of quality development, and Murdo Maciver, the head of provisions and contract services - is paired with an education officer and the pair share an operational area role as well as a set of strategic remits.

"Thus our management team share the tasks of both devising policy and implementing it," Mr O'Neill comments. "This should ensure a healthy dose of reality in our team discussions." That is surely a pledge worth signing.

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