Our critical friends

Education advisers are valued by many schools for their support to management teams and subject leaders through reviews and inspections, staff development and spreading best practice. They are partners in the improvement drive. But advisers feel their jobs are under threat, not least because they were left out of the McCrone pay deal. Raymond Ross reports

Education advisers have felt sidelined since last year's teachers' McCrone settlement, which failed to include them in the 23 per cent three-year pay deal. Only a month ago, adviser members of the Educational Institute of Scotland threatened mass resignations if the union did not take a firmer line in negotiations over their pay. Now they have been offered 15 per cent over three years and are angry.

The role of advisers has changed over the years, but schools still believe they are "vital" and could become even more important if principal teachers' roles become less subject-specific. In a rural area such as the Borders, which has fought hard to protect adviser numbers, one headteacher said schools "value them absolutely".

These days an adviser is less likely to be a traditional primary or secondary subject specialist. Those paid under the present advisers' salary scale include staff development, neighbourhood liaison, quality assurance and education officers.

One of the first education authorities to embody the generic approach was Renfrewshire, which employs seven permanent advisers, each covering a cluster of 10 or more educational establishments which typically include nurseries, primary schools, secondaries and special schools.

"They are generic in the sense that they have overall responsibility for quality development, linking to schools, subject areas and project management covering primary, secondary, pre-five and special educational needs," says Stephen McKenzie, Renfrewshire's head of quality and service development.

Working for the advisers, with more specific roles, is a team of temporary staff tutors who are seconded from schools for up to two years. They spend most of their week delivering in-service training or support in schools and feed back information to the advisers.

"Staff tutors are seconded as part of their professional development while allowing us to get people hot from schools to deal with current issues, like the development of Higher Still," says Mr McKenzie. "This is a deliberate policy to deal with issues as they arise with a degree of expertise in focused areas, such as guidance, the early years, information and communications technology and Higher Still. The staff tutor can focus entirely on a specific area, while the adviser picks that up at a broader level."

The advisers' role is two-fold, says Mr McKenzie. "They offer broad support in terms of resources and performance review and they are in charge of project management, which includes anything from circle time in primaries to early intervention, modern languages and Higher Still. Advisers take control of these projects and evaluate their progress yearly and at the end. Their focus is on learning and teaching across the curriculum rather than just subject-based."

Increasingly, advisers work in quality development, looking at exam analysis, 5-14 targets, attendance (as part of target setting), helping to draw up each school's three-year authority review and compiling HM Inspectorate of Education reports and performance data, which they draw together for their own standards and quality reports.

This does not mean that they are remote from schools, says Bill Fleming, one of Renfrewshire's seven advisers. "We know our schools and their staff and we share good practice among them. In our pastoral role we are critical friends for senior management, challenging and suggesting improvements. Without us schools would be insular."

Working with the staff tutors - "practitioners who are closer to the needs of staff and pupils" - the team structure allows advisers to think more strategically and longer term and to take account of legislation and national guidelines while accessing and sharing best practice from around the country, says Mr Fleming.

"We support the broader view of learning and teaching, dealing mainly with senior management, taking ideas and projects forward. We provide consistency of interpretation to make sure everyone understands and moves forward together. This requires knowledge and management skills.

"Schools need people to do this, so that they can get on with delivering the curriculum.

"Schools come looking for advice and support. They come to us because they value us. If they didn't, they wouldn't."

There could be tension between the twin roles of advising and supporting schools on the one hand and evaluating them on the other, but there isn't, says Liz Jamieson, Renfrewshire's curriculum services manager. "It's simply the case that if you want to improve, you have to monitor. It's not an inspectorial job because our advisers are not neutral. They're here to support.

"HMIs give schools points of action and then walk away. Advisers, as by-products of what they do, are automatically helping schools prepare for inspections and they are also there to pick up on points inspectors make and, with the staff tutors, work on further improvements.

"HMIs have often commented on the quality of our follow-up work."

Mrs Jamieson believes that advisers are at the cutting edge of educational development, in terms of individual school plans, which they help to draw up, and as a whole.

"Advisers support schools and assure quality. Without them schools would lack support, challenge and direction," she says.

Liz Morrison is a principal teacher of guidance who is one year into her 23-month secondment as one of Renfrewshire's staff tutors. Her role is to support schools with curriculum and pastoral development and to share good practice through the guidance forum which brings together all the secondary guidance departments.

"It's very much a partnership between the advisory staff and the schools. It's focused teamwork, gathering and sharing information," she says.

"I applied for the job because I felt the role was important and I was interested in sharing good practice at a wider level between schools. I think one of the important things we do is to give staff the confidence to self-evaluate."

While advisers may feel less valued because of the McCrone settlement missing them out, they remain confident of the value of what they do.

Mr Fleming says: "We are there to challenge and to suggest how things could be better. We have the facilities and the abilities to support schools through reviews and inspections and to draw up action plans.

"We generally come in at senior management level in schools but we also support and manage subject leaders (principal teachers) in secondaries and subject area co-ordinators in primaries.

"We provide consistency of interpretation with regard to development plans, national guidelines and curriculum development. We are part of the improvement agenda.

"You have to remember that there's a quality assurance role, which is vital to delivering the government's Education Act, and that's a job many of us are doing."

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