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Man in a maelstrom;Interview;Michael O'Neill

Lollipop men on pound;370 a week, plumbers on pound;54,100 a year - North Lanarkshire's reputation is at an all-time low. But it's not all doom and gloom. Seonag MacKinnon talks to director of education Michael O'Neill

Fate was not kind in ordaining that an interview with the director of education in North Lanarkshire should take place on a day when a managerial and financial fiasco in the council had exploded on to newspaper front pages.

There was the little matter of a pound;4.5 million hole in the council accounts, not unconnected with a direct labour force which leaves work each day with the kind of cars and pay packet that teachers only dream about. A plumber on basic pay of pound;10,600 notches up - with overtime and bonuses - pound;54,100. A lollipop man - declining to give an interview to the press unless paid - goes home with pound;370 for a 10-hour week.

Pity Michael O'Neill, the director of education striving to present his authority in the best possible light on a day when other council executives are being suspended and the normally mild-mannered Secretary of State, Donald Dewar, is threatening more blood on the carpet if investigations confirm allegations of sleaze and incompetence.

Just weeks after hearing that teachers' pay is to rise by 3 per cent, sympathy may be in short supply for the beleaguered chief executive Andrew Cowe, appointed on a salary of pound;90,000 or the council leader and former maths and physics teacher Harry McGuigan with his pound;251-a-roll office wallpaper, leather furniture and en suite bathroom. Many of the teachers work in leaking Sixties buildings or in constructions where mice run along the floors and asbestos is rampant in the ceilings.

North Lanarkshire schools are in such a poor state that the backlog of repairs amounts to pound;80 million, of which pound;24m is considered urgent, Category A. It is in this unpromising environment of great poverty, modest teachers' pay, tight budgets and many shoddy buildings that O'Neill is aiming to boost the morale and achievement of staff and children.

In doing so, he hopes to break the cycle of deprivation for individual families and stimulate socio-economic regeneration of the community as a whole.

So is the 48-year-old O'Neill an innocent abroad or a visionary who can make a difference? One secondary teacher said "I can't make up my mind whether he's just a middle-aged trendy or whether what he's trying to do will work and will change anything."

Nevertheless, headteachers in the area appear to detect a shift already.

One secondary head said: "I'm very, very pleased with the way things are going. The authority is not just coming out with platitudes. Despite a serious financial situation, money is going into extra staffing and supported study to raise achievement. They are winning councillors over to what they want to do."

A primary colleague now finds the council "supportive and approachable". "They are trying to create a positive kind of ethos in schools. They have taken cognisance of what we are doing here, which we didn't always have in the past."

A comment from O'Neill himself suggests that there is more to him than indicated by the fashionably and relentlessly optimistic commentary on the future for staff and children. In a surprise remark, given his harmonious relationship with the teaching unions, O'Neill states: "It is outdated for staff dismissals to be done through education committees. It can be seen by parents as additional protection that other council employees do not have."

But he rushes to add that the kind of teachers who give the majority a bad name amount to "less than 1 per cent" and appeals procedures through personnel departments safeguard against injustices.

Like a graduate fresh from one of the Jack Black MindStore-type courses and Tim Brighouse, the inspirational educationist south of the border whom O'Neill admires, he is so very strong on being positive. He wants to encourage, not hold a stick above the heads of teachers. Hence at any of the authority's 170 schools, members of the directorate call into staffrooms for coffee and teachers who have clocked up some success or are heading for retirement may find a hand-written note in their pigeon-hole, containing information which indicates some thought went into the message. Tony Blair, and Hillary Clinton are among those noted for hand-written notes which have won many over to their side. In a similar spirit North Lanarkshire teachers passing the primary foreign language course are presented with an award certificate at a wine and sandwich reception. Patronising? Not so, says O'Neill: "I was astounded the first time by the way it was received. It was a bit like assembly in a primary school with people getting 50-metre swim badges. Staff from other authorities said it was unfair they didn't get them. It showed me the need to keep raising staff morale, to tell them how well they are doing."

Later this month many teachers will see their individual successes - ideas which have worked at the chalkface - projected on to the big screen of a major cinema in the area. A mass audience of colleagues will congregate to see the Catalogue of Good Practice. The hope is that good ideas will spread.

Earlier this month there was a day out at a theme park for hundreds of pupils who rose to the challenge in a month-long drive to improve behaviour, attendance and compliance with the council's school uniform code. A big bang launch is also planned for a new Raising Achievement for All policy which proposes that every pupil should have targeted extra-curricular activities such as a residential trip, an Outward Bound course, a programme of theatre trips or free music tuition.

The thinking is that such experiences, which help develop the whole person, should not be seen as an optional extra, because "aspects of personal development correlate more significantly with achievement in later life than do paper qualifications" according to O'Neill. Hence the formation in many schools of rock bands which particularly appeal to the many boys who do not flock to join orchestras. And the formation of after-school football clubs, including four for girls only.

Although development is promoted as multi-faceted, the policy document does not marginalise exams. It describes them as: "a crucial determiner of access to employment and further educational opportunities. It is vital that learners be equipped with qualifications they need to function well in a highly competitive world."

As part of the drive to raise standards, the council plans to extend supported study into primary schools in the next academic year. Another measure is the introduction of more time for maths and language during the early years by cutting back time spent during this period on environmental studies. North Lanarkshire was the first authority to stick its head above the parapet and announce this controversial strategy. Now the betting is on this strategy spreading throughout Scotland.

The idea came directly from one of several working groups and focus groups North Lanarkshire has set up to communicate with parents, headteachers and a cross-section of unpromoted staff. The directorate won brownie points among many teachers for listening and then taking action.

Their complaints about lack of time to develop science lessons in upper primary and inconsistent curriculum experience among pupils has also led to the formulation of a framework science course supported by in-service. And a similar development is proposed for language teaching in primaries, so that each teacher does not have to re-invent the wheel.

But the closer relationship being forged with schools features monitoring as well as support. Each year a member of the directorate visits schools to discuss their exam results. And North Lanarkshire was the first authority successfully to introduce professional review and development for staff. Although nationally unions have stood firm against appraisal, locally officers were persuaded to agree - to the point of actually taking part in the launch ceremony.

It may be too soon to make an assessment of the authority's ability to achieve major long-term objectives. Nevertheless, a former colleague at Strathclyde region strikes an optimistic note. Keir Bloomer, now director of education at Clackmannanshire who invited O'Neill earlier this month to speak to the council's headteachers, said: "He was well regarded in Strathclyde as someone who does deliver. As far as I am able to judge he is delivering in North Lanarkshire. They try to itemise not just what the policies are, but what support they are going to put in to achieve that and to measure outcomes."

A positive note too from a director of education who asked not to be named: "Among the large authorities North Lanarkshire does stand out as doing extremely well. It must be very frustrating being a successful department in an authority with such problems."

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