Andrew Sutherland

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Falkirk Council's education director talks about a paradigm shift in the senior phase, the possibility of pupils using their own mobile devices in school and why people should be persuaded to go for headships. Interview by Henry Hepburn, Photography by James Glossop

You've talked about a crucial 'paradigm shift' in the senior phase - what would it entail?

If every young person came with #163;5,000 and said: "We want the best education", then the five-Higher child is quite straightforward - we have that. We need to ensure the child not doing Highers gets their #163;5,000 spent properly. We need to restructure completely what we deliver in the senior phase.

Are schools ready for that?

It varies. There is inherent conservatism across Scotland, for understandable reasons. Much of what we do presently works very well. There are those who can be articulate and vocal, who perceive the present system as suiting their needs (eg, five Highers) and can be resistant to any change that does not reinforce the primacy of this objective. This is misguided as it does not take into account a potentially improved educational experience for this cohort and it does not consider the needs of the more silent majority.

You see dangers in 'bolting on' new educational approaches to the traditional Scottish academic emphasis. What's the biggest pitfall?

If you bolt on additional courses, it's perceived they have unequal value. But how does one value an engineering HNC against, say, a physics Higher? It depends on the pathway you want to follow. Janet Brown (chief executive, Scottish Qualifications Authority) said there's a massive SQA catalogue that we've barely touched. There are opportunities we could use, but the senior-phase evolution will take at least three years.

What do you hope to have achieved after three years?

That we have effective partnerships so young people can choose the subjects they do, where they study them, and sometimes even when they study them - there's nothing to stop people being at college on a Saturday morning. And that they can see particular destinations. We're very bad at using intelligence around the labour market.

What's your view on internet restrictions and pupils using their devices in school?

Our view is evolving. In principle, we see the benefits of handheld devices. It's inevitable that'll be how we move forward. Our responsibilities are, however, to ensure it's managed in a safe way. We're soon going to open up YouTube to young people in Falkirk schools, but it'll be done so that schools can post stuff safely.

You don't envisage pupils searching YouTube without restrictions?

Not yet. Potentially within a year you could argue that a senior pupil doing Higher or Advanced Higher programmes could have open access. My last two pieces of significant learning were on YouTube - I learned to tie a bow tie and lay a slab.

Why is it crucial for teachers to understand Girfec?

With good physical and mental health, confidence and resilience, you can go to good learning. Girfec is about formal recognition that everyone has these needs, which are not always met at home. There was a mistake when Girfec developed separately from Curriculum for Excellence. Girfec should have been the umbrella, CfE a subset.

In East Ayrshire you had a #163;1 million schools 'business enterprise fund', and invited entrepreneurs into schools. How does the sometimes ruthless business world fit with school values?

There was no tension. The business world captured the entrepreneurial aspirations of children and teachers. The values of business - OK, it's about making a profit - but it's also about employment, making a difference to society, improving the country's economy. So the differences are not that significant at all.

You were Meldrum Academy's head when it opened. Is being head more difficult in a school with no history?

Yes. I had to create an ethos and set of values. I spent a lot of time on values with young people and staff. I was taking in about 35 teachers a year. You'd do it all, then this whole new tranche would arrive and you'd do it again, which actually kept energy levels high. It was 2006 before the school was full and settled. But what a delight: Meldrum Academy was my third child, in that I reared it all the way through and still have a great passion for the school.

The difficulty in persuading people to go for headships is well documented. Why should anyone make that step?

If you have a vision for education, and really want to make a difference, it's one of the best jobs you can have.

You grew up in a single-parent family in a poorer part of Glasgow, with four younger siblings. What enabled you to do well?

When I was five my mother told me I'd go to university, and I never questioned her - she's my mother. I've always been ambitious, I've got a strong internal drive. I was bright, but it always came down to good teachers. Some are still friends, such as my history teacher Jack Walker.

Was there a pivotal moment?

I was a keen reader and quite quiet. My P4 teacher, Miss McHardy, used to give me books and I would sit with her and read. Also, my mother, from the age of about 11, would give me the housekeeping money. I would run the house. Since I was young, I've always been in charge.


Born: Guildford, 1960

Education: McGill Primary and Crookston Castle Secondary, both Glasgow; University of Glasgow, modern history and politics; teacher training at Jordanhill College, Glasgow

Career: History and modern studies teacher; various promoted roles; headteacher at a new school, Aberdeenshire's Meldrum Academy, from 2001; East Ayrshire head of schools from 2008; Falkirk education director since January 2012. Other roles include chair of government group on Girfec.

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