A long life in learning

15th December 2006 at 00:00
The man whose remarkable career culminated at the helm of learndirect scotland is retiring

FRANK PIGNATELLI will remain resolutely at his desk in learndirect scotland's Glasgow offices until next Friday, his 60th birthday. Then it's off to enjoy the fruits of his labours in France, where he and his wife will live part of the year.

He handed over day-to-day responsibility last month to Damien Yeates, his successor as the organisation's chief executive, and was persuaded to stay on to polish off some unfinished business.

Mr Pignatelli has had more rebranding in his remarkable career than most educationists, emerging latterly as "Mr Lifelong Learning". But if anyone is looking for the embodiment of lifelong learning, they should turn to Mrs Pignatelli rather than Mr Pignatelli - not his wife but his mother, who took her Higher modern studies 10 years ago at the age of 73.

The man who shot to prominence to become director of education in Strathclyde in 1988 says he never harboured ambitions to swell the ranks of the bureaucracy.

He was proceeding smoothly upwards as a modern languages teacher, eventually becoming assistant head at St Margaret Mary's Secondary in Castlemilk, when the call came to be an education officer in Strathclyde's Renfrew division in 1978. This was under the leadership of the legendary Tom McCool, who was a formative influence in Mr Pignatelli's career.

On the way to the top in Strathclyde in a brief 10 years, he was given responsibility for the curriculum and staffing, the two plum jobs, in which he was able to extend his formidable networking skills with teachers and councillors.

It would have been surprising if Mr Pignatelli had reached that pinnacle without making enemies. With responsibility for more than 2,000 schools and other educational establishments, 53,000 staff (initially) and a pound;1.3 billion budget, he had surged ahead of three other, longer-serving deputes.

"If I'd known about the complexity of the job," he said, "I probably wouldn't have taken it."

The 42-year-old gave every indication of being a man in a hurry. He had inherited a service run by what Ian Davidson, his acerbic education chairman at the time and now a Westminster MP, described as "the no can do" department, following the fearsome reign of the only other education director in Strathclyde, Eddie Miller.

The council enlisted the services of the Inlogov local government consultants at the University of Birmingham, whose report savaged the department and set the scene for a string of innovations.

Many of the early Strathclyde initiatives eventually went national - the drive to involve parents in the curriculum, devolved school management, the "securitate" evaluation of school performance, the emphasis on S1S2, the reforms of the pre-fives service, the "Adapting to Change" attempt at a council-wide approach to school closures. Some were seen as ideological and invited opprobrium, but Mr Pignatelli says it was about "keeping one step ahead of the game".

Nobody applies to be an education director to win popularity contests, and Mr Pignatelli was not disappointed. He possibly made a rod for his own back. "I saw my job as being an advocate for parents and young people," he says, "and I faced more challenges internally than I did externally."

Mr Pignatelli's developing views placed him increasingly at odds with the culture of the public service at that time. A seminal moment was a speech in 1993 by Tony Blair, then Shadow Home Secretary, who said it did not matter who provided a service, so long as it was of high quality. New Labour had arrived early for him.

His final days in Strathclyde were not fulfilling. He turned down the chance to become chief executive of the new Glasgow City Council and headed for the private sector. But he grew disillusioned there, too, as group director of human resources at Associated News-papers, publishers of the ultra-right Daily Mail stable of newspapers. He fell out of sympathy with a way of working he describes as less than "collegiate". He left and, for a while, ran his own management consultancy with such blue chip clients as Motorola and the Irish Government.

He then rejoined a very different kind of public sector in 1999 when he became the first chief executive of the Scottish University for Industry, rebranded as learndirect scotland. Through its "pledge to learners", this was an organisation closer to Mr Pignatelli's heart.

He believes it is characterised by "the adoption of the best of private sector practices by a team of dedicated staff whose aim is not personal profit". It is probably an epitaph he would like for himself.

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