A neat man of power

31st January 2003 at 00:00
The Shadow Education Minister meets a former sparring partner, Archie Morton, director of education in Argyll and Bute

There is something about directors of education that conjures up a mixture of awe, fear and suspicion. They are, after all, the most powerful figures in the educational jungle, the big beasts around which whirls a never-ending dance of easy come, easy go, heidies, teachers, pupils and even politicians.

It is, in that sense, an old-fashioned role, though few these days have the longevity in office of a Mr TG Henderson MA JP, whose remarkable 26 years in charge are celebrated on a plaque opposite the reception desk in Argyll House, today's rather ugly and over-crowded nerve centre of Argyll and Bute Council's education department which sits four-square facing the sea on Dunoon's faded promenade.

I am sure that teachers quailed at the very mention of Mr Henderson's name and that the prospect of his arrival in Tarbert or Taynuilt caused strong men and even stronger women to weep. No doubt some of them nurtured in the deepest recesses of their heart the view that they could have been directors of education, had chance and circumstance not blighted their careers while favouring his - much in the manner of a janitor at a school my father taught in, who always maintained that he could have been a teacher but that "they" had always blocked his path; "they" being the usual unspecified forces of darkness which we all blame from time to time.

Perhaps to some "they" were - and still are - the likes of Mr Henderson.

I read the plaque to Mr Henderson while waiting to be ushered into the presence of his modern successor in Argyll, Archie Morton.

Shadowing individuals to learn about what is happening in Scotland's classrooms seemed a good idea until it occurred to me that I would have to shadow at least one administrator, and that the best one to look at, because of some his ideas and battles, would probably be my wife's boss.

I was slightly doubtful that Archie would agree to be shadowed. We had fallen out some years previously over the closure of rural schools in Argyll, a battle which though lost on that occasion (and that was for my wife's school) was subsequently won for some other small rural primaries by means of an effective intervention from the Parliament's education committee.

This was not entirely welcomed by council officials. We had also failed to see eye to eye about his "vision paper" which outlined a radical approach to the organisation of schooling but which had been decisively rejected by public and politicians in Argyll and furth of the county.

But Archie was willing to talk and to show me what he did. So we sat in the falling dusk in his surprisingly homely office and talked of his career and what he still hoped to achieve.

Archie Morton came to Argyll on the formation of the new authority from a post as senior assistant director of education in Glasgow, part of the old Strathclyde set-up. A geography teacher, he had worked in Lockerbie, Paisley and Greenock as well as in administration in Renfrew. He now commutes the very short distance from a sea-view home in Kilmun to a sea-view office in Dunoon, although actually covering Argyll is a huge job.

Archie is a self-contained individual. Small, dapper and balding, he can be gregarious in company, but there is always a sense of self-control as if he believes that authority can only be maintained by insisting on distance.

"Machiavellian" is a word that has been applied to him, although the way that his radical "vision" of education was borne into the world has always seemed to me to have been somewhat naive. Ideas, especially new ones, need a careful midwife.

He admits, almost cheerfully, to both the Machiavellian tag and to the failures to assess properly the likely opposition to his big ideas, which he suggests were "presented in the wrong way". But he stands firmly by the view that radical change in how we organise our schooling is inevitable, particularly in rural areas.

As the afternoon progresses, I am struck by how often he returns to that theme - the need for big thinking about subjects as diverse as virtual primary schools, the use of non-profit-making mechanisms for renewing the infrastructure and the obvious necessity for an exit plan from the present straitjacket of a rigid national examination system.

We range over a huge variety of topics but I am keen to circle in on just a few. Eventually I ask him directly what he thinks his role is as a director of education. His words do not flow as fast at this moment, perhaps because there are many roles that he seems keen to perform.

He calls himself at times a "juggler of resources", trying to get the maximum value out of the money available: he uses the word "worth" a lot, in the context of improving the self-regard and self-respect of teachers and pupils alike. He even claims to get a "buzz" out of making the system work for young people in school.

Pressed for a simple job description, he defines the role of the authority as being to ensure that staff and pupils have the best possible opportunity to succeed and his role as being to deliver that ambition by the prudent use of money and talent.

When it comes to the role of politicians, he is less positive. They are certainly there to ask questions but sometimes he resents their desire to, as he puts it, "catch out" people like himself.

He seems reluctant to draw his line of policy accountability to elected councillors, but rather expresses it as being to the community on one hand, and to those who work under him at all levels, though he is keen to stress that he believes in co-operation and collective decision-making rather than simple direction. Nonetheless, if direction has to be given, he is clear that it is his job to give it. The impression is that he does.

Like all modern bureaucrats - and I do not use the term pejoratively - Archie is adept at the current jargon of his discipline. We get deep into "quality indicators", "national priorities" and "best practice". He is involved in working with other authorities in the development of "partnerships" to secure "excellence".

However, when the language is stripped away, there is a genuine passion for education in his conversation and in his work, and a direct concern for the welfare and future of the children who are his ultimate responsibility.

To most teachers there are few figures in education as distant from their immediate classroom concerns as their director, and yet it is obvious that he sees a direct line from his own desk to those at which thousands of pupils in Argyll sit every day. He sees his actions as being, in the end, judged by them and by what they achieve and he welcomes it.

Unlike TG Henderson, Archie will not be director of education in Argyll for 26 years. Indeed his retiral, though not imminent, is not all that far away and some of the really big questions for the future will require answers from his successor.

The most troubled of these will be the ability of Argyll to maintain 100 establishments including vital rural schools when resources are, of necessity, being swallowed up in the new not-for-profit school refurbishment just getting under way. He will certainly not see the changes to school hours and organisation that he believes in.

Yet he is right to say that bit by bit he has made a difference. He may never be loved by Argyll's teachers but then I suspect neither was Mr Henderson. That doesn't come with the brief.

Nevertheless, by dint of the effective discharge of his duties, he will have the right to be remembered. He might even be missed for, surprisingly, he is not nearly as scary, or as Machiavellian, as some think.

Next week: Rachel Hill, teacher at Stanmore House School, Lanark

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