Skip to main content

Artist at work

Eschewing power suits and top-down management, Sue Mulvany is bringing fresh thinking and creative flair to her job as Lancashire's education chief. Diane Hofkins meets her

Sue Mulvany, Lancashire's newly appointed director of education and cultural services, has a triptych hanging on her office wall. The three large paintings show a panoramic view from the balcony of her Lake District home in Kendal, and she painted them herself. "It's the wider perspective, looking above the horizon," she says, although she admits the symbolism occurred to her only after she started the painting during the summer.

She knows displaying her own work is a gamble - people might think her full of herself, or that the painting isn't very good - but she's "happy to take risks and happy to explore the unknown. Leaders have to be confident in uncertainty."

Although this kind of exposure is "like going to confession in public", she wants to demonstrate the importance of having a life outside work, and that creativity is a key part of everyone's job. Outside her office is a poster titled, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten", which talks about holding hands and sticking together, the nurturing effects of milk and cookies and the awareness of wonder.

She has a bit of a reputation as a mother hen (she was TES Primary magazine's first agony aunt), but Mrs Mulvany is clearly tough when she needs to be, or she would not have made the journey from Barnsley primary head to chief education officer in just under a decade.

When Mrs Mulvany, 54, took over the pound;105,000 job in June, after Chris Trinnick moved up to become chief executive, the local paper ran the headline, "Sue gets pound;606 million to make a difference". It was salutary. "It's the working-class ethic," she says. "You've got to earn it.

You've got to make a difference. You can't do it on your own." She and her executive management team have already set five objectives with 23 desired outcomes for a more inclusive and efficient education system, along with a slogan: "Excellence and Participation for All".

The unsuspecting must often be disarmed by her non-managerial style; she is not into power suits, and her accent speaks of her childhood in a Lancashire mining village. She is working to combine Lancashire's existing expertise with new blood. One example is Pat Jefferson, who has arrived in Preston via Newcastle and the Department for Education and Skills innovations unit to take over Mrs Mulvany's former job as the county's director of school standards.

On a "vision, values and action" awayday for her new senior management team, says Mrs Jefferson, "Sue arranged for the team to get into a boat together and row across Lake Windermere. We all started pulling in different directions. By the time we got to the other side we were all pulling together. Because it was a shared experience, we all took some of the credit for having got there."

"I love organisations," says Mrs Mulvany. "It's like conducting an orchestra. You produce something greater than the component parts." Her degree in fine art combined with a love of jigsaw puzzles feeds into her philosophy of management as a creative pursuit. "I love putting things together and making them fit," she says. "History of art is a fantastic discipline. You're as creative in dealing with people as you were when you did art all day."

She is keen to empower people - those who work for her as well as the children of Lancashire - and bring out their talents."You have to be flexible and trust others," she says.

Mrs Mulvany's background is unconventional for an education chief. She has taught at every level in primary and secondary schools apart from Year 6, was heavily involved in the pre-school playgroup movement when her two children were small, and has worked in social services. Given that many directors of education could assume responsibility for children's services if the Every Child Matters Green Paper becomes law, it's a good grounding.

After getting her BA, she did a PGCE at Manchester as a stop-gap, but, to her surprise, fell in love with teaching on her first practice. "I got such a rush of adrenalin. It was like being hit with a brick - the wonder, the thrill of teaching."

She loves complexity, so a huge local education authority with 648 schools encompassing racially divided Burnley and pretty Lake District villages, plus arts centres and museums, is challenging rather than daunting.

All this, combined with a hidden restlessness, has allowed Mrs Mulvany to make a difference in a wide variety of places. Aged 25, as co-ordinator of the design faculty at St Cuthbert's secondary in Bolton, she was one of the first to challenge gender-based lessons, allowing boys to do needlework and girls to do woodwork and metalwork. These were radical steps in mid-1970s northern England. She had escaped the influence of typical role models because her mother, deputy head of the village school in their home of Aspull, near Wigan, was the main breadwinner, while her father, an ex-prisoner of war in Auschwitz, delivered coal and looked after the house.

As a reception teacher in Barnsley, Mrs Mulvany discovered half the class was left-handed, and rather than viewing it as a problem or an oddity, she canvassed left-handed parents to find out what sort of difficulties they faced.

More innovative work followed when she became head of Kexborough primary in Barnsley in 1990, including a nationally acclaimed anti-bullying scheme, a policy of complete inclusiveness for disabled children and an outdoor classroom where every child planted a tree. One day she gathered the school together and asked the children and teachers why they came to school. The teachers gave answers such as, "because I love children", which was important for the pupils to hear. Advisory work followed in Kirklees and Birmingham (still a "home from home"), where she became senior adviser under Tim Brighouse.

As Lancashire's director of school standards, she set up a system for using statistics to target local needs. The local authority averages concealed important differences, such as areas where girls bucked the trend and did worse than boys.

And she has learned from each place she has worked. On her first teaching practice at a Manchester secondary, for instance, she did a well-planned lesson on pets, and got a good grade for her work. Then she asked the children what pets they had. "Silence. Then a lad sat up and said, 'I've got loads of pets. When I go to bed they come out and crawl all over me'. I learned that you go in with preconceptions. These children didn't even know what a pet was." In today's even more divided world, this lesson remains clear. "We always have to check our understanding is shared."

Mrs Mulvany's natural confidence and competence have occasionally wavered.

At 26, having applied for a deputy headship, she withdrew after the interview stage; then she and husband Michael had their first child and she decided to stay at home. "I was so traumatised by having that baby and living in a village where I had no family," she says. "I put Alice to sleep in a pram, left it in front of the house and went to the butcher's. I didn't know you didn't do that. My confidence was rock-bottom, like that of so many mothers."

The experience has given her a strong empathy with families who are stressed and distressed. When she took her daughter to the local playgroup, she had to force herself to walk across the hall to register. But she was fascinated to watch how babies learned, how play helps them make sense of the world, and within two-and-a-half years she was pre-school playgroups area organiser for South Yorkshire. Later, before retraining as a primary teacher, she worked for social services with a desperate family, where the parents had learning difficulties, and the children eventually had to go into care. It struck her hard that "no person visited that house who wasn't paid to visit". The advances in Every Child Matters have been a long time coming, she says.

The ethos of working for the greater good is a powerful one for Mrs Mulvany. She is proud that her mother, as the local deputy head, "taught the village to read. That's a wonderful thing to be able to say. It's about helping your community." Now Mrs Mulvany is back, helping that same, if wider, community. "If Mum knew what I was doing now, she'd have been so proud."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you