A man with a head for heights

11th December 2009 at 00:00
High expectations of new senior chief inspector of education

If not quite the prodigal son, Bill Maxwell will be welcomed back to Scotland with open arms by many in the Scottish education scene when he succeeds Graham Donaldson as senior chief inspector of education early next year.

He is described variously as "a people person", "nobody's fool", "a peacemaker" and "a good listener" by some who knew him in Scotland before he became head of Estyn, the Welsh education and training inspectorate in February, 2008.

That view is not unanimous, however. Some HMIE insiders felt he was "indecisive" and lacked leadership qualities. They were not convinced of his educational credentials since he came from an educational psychology as opposed to a school background, joining the Scottish inspectorate relatively young as an SEN specialist.

One questioned whether a man who sent his two daughters to private school in Edinburgh should be charged with being the watchdog of the Scottish state school system.

Others believe that if anyone can draw the feuding elements together and build consensus over qualifications and assessment under Curriculum for Excellence, and literacy and numeracy testing, then it is he.

Most agree that Dr Maxwell's experience in Wales will have given him a valuable perspective on an education system beyond Scotland's borders. "Having been down south, he will be able to bring to the post that understanding of how it works elsewhere," said one commentator.

The view from Wales is that he will be sadly missed. Gareth Jones, secretary of ASCL Cymru (the secondary headteachers' association in Wales), says: "He led the development of a whole new inspection framework and was very open in his working style. He has laid the foundations for the improvement of education in Wales over the next three to five years."

The general expectation is that Dr Maxwell will develop the inspectorate while sticking with its essential standards. His experience in Wales, according to a former colleague, "will have put a bit of distance between himself and those he's coming back to manage - a good combination".

It is widely acknowledged that Mr Donaldson has been the main driver behind Curriculum for Excellence, living and breathing its vision and becoming irritated with its critics. In recent weeks, he has become something of a siren voice, warning that CfE will not achieve its potential unless leadership becomes stronger and continuing professional development more effective. But will his successor share his passion for the new curriculum? "He will listen more sympathetically to the range of views and try to make it work," said one education leader.

Dr Maxwell will take over the reins at a time when secondary heads have become openly hostile to some of the reforms, and when continuing professional development and other budgets are becoming tighter.

In his statement, on the announcement of his appointment this week, Dr Maxwell said: "I know that one of the major challenges faced by Scotland is that, for many years, too many of Scotland's learners have failed to thrive. I am committed to working with partners to raise overall standards, while also ensuring that all Scotland's learners achieve positive outcomes."

That sentiment is typical, say some, of a man whose early interests lay in special needs and support for learning. "He's always held close to his heart the wee souls who under-perform - the ones that the system does not do well with," said one source.

An outdoors enthusiast who is said to be very fit, he celebrated a special anniversary by taking his wife to one of the remotest parts of Patagonia on a climbing holiday. So, if things get tough and he needs to clear his head, look for Bill Maxwell on a hilltop - the wilder and lonelier, the better.

Bill Maxwell

Age: 52

Born: Edinburgh

Education: High School of Dundee

University: Oxford, Edinburgh and Glasgow - M.A. (Hons); M.App.Sci; PhD and a Diploma in Teaching Practice

1984: educational psychologist with Dumfries and Galloway Regional Council

1990: moved to Grampian Region where he rose to be principal educational psychologist

1994: inspector of schools, based in Aberdeen

1998: district inspector in the north-east of Scotland, before becoming lead inspector in HMIE's quality, standards and audit unit

2001: seconded to the Standing International Conference of Inspectorates to act as a project manager for European Commission-funded programme on effective school self-evaluation

2002: chief inspector of education

2006: seconded to Scottish Executive as head of Education, Information and Analytical Services

2008: head of Estyn, the Welsh education and training inspectorate.

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