A man of intellect

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
Keir Bloomer, whose retirement as chief executive of Clackman-nanshire Council was announced last week, could be found on Tuesday at a conference in Edinburgh doing what he does best - demonstrating that he is one of the foremost intellects of his generation.

He is one of those rare specimens who, whether people agree with him or not, has never had his brainpower called into question - be it as a union leader in the 1970s and early 1980s, as an education official in the former Strathclyde Region, as director of education in Clackmannanshire or as a formative influence on the committee which produced A Curriculum for Excellence.

"He's the only person I've heard who actually talks in sentences," it was once said of his elegant and eloquent speaking style. Wit, logic and clarity are its hallmarks.

Mr Bloomer showed early promise as he beat a path from Green-ock Academy to Cambridge Uni-versity, not a journey undertaken by many. He taught in a number of Glasgow schools for 12 years ("every school I taught in has been closed down," he jokes), but it was as a rising star in the political ferment of the Educational Institute of Scotland in Glasgow that he made his name.

The former history teacher recalls a career high point - December 18, 1973 - which saw what probably remains the largest ever gathering of Scottish teachers. Some 5,000 to 6,000 turned out in Glasgow's Apollo Theatre to demand a "contract" to protect their working conditions.

This was finally signed in January 1976, which Mr Bloomer says was also a career high. It ushered in limits on working hours, class contact and class sizes which continue to dominate and define teachers' conditions of service.

As someone who famously jumped the dyke from union to management, Mr Bloomer has since had some cause to rue the document to which he put his name 31 years ago. But, he reflects, "the contract was an important influence, for good and ill - and in that order. Having enforceable contractual obligations did protect Scottish teachers from the worst excesses later on when conditions were being eroded in England. But it then turned into a defensive bulwark for those who did not wish to see change and progress".

If Mr Bloomer has faced any criticism in his 39-year career, it is the "too clever by half" label that comes with the territory of having intellectual confidence and not suffering fools at all, let alone gladly. Many of his more diehard union colleagues suspected his convictions ran no deeper than those of the skilled advocate who could take any brief and argue it persuasively.

This was confirmed for many of them when he was roundly condemned for leaving his post as deputy general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland to join the "big brother" management in Strathclyde Region's education department; appropriately, it was in 1984.

The fuss it caused is difficult to comprehend now, but the sound of knives being sharpened was clearly heard. Today, there would be barely a stir - as was proved a decade later when Roger Stewart, no less an EIS stalwart, became director of education in West Lothian.

The very top of the directorate tree could also have beckoned for Mr Bloomer. But having put some distance between himself and some of his union allies, he then alienated the Labour Party in the west of Scotland by joining the rival Social Democratic Party, compounding the "sin" by standing against Labour in a Westminster parliamentary election.

This was said to have been fatal to his career prospects. Certainly, when the shake-up of local government came in 1996 and Strath-clyde disappeared, he had to settle for leading education in the "wee county" of Clackmannan-shire, becoming its chief executive in 2000.

He has spent his recent years combining the unlikely roles of elder statesman and gadfly, probing the assumptions of those in authority and indulging in blue-skies thinking, as he was again this week in vintage style (see page 11).

Despite the certainty he often conveys, one of his former colleagues in Clackmannanshire recalls that "he responded with pleasure to those who challenged some of his more outrageous flights of fancy, occasionally necessary when his blue-skies thinking moved towards outer space".

His time as vice-chairman of Learning and Teaching Scotland allowed him to indulge in some of that thinking and to influence the current curriculum reforms - another career high point, he says. Despite his many criticisms of the way the education system is run, he is happy to acknowledge that these plans mean "Scotland is one of the few countries which has a 'big picture' view of where it wants to take education. The question is what we do with it."

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