The city of aspirations

21st February 2003 at 00:00
Neil Munro talks to Glasgow'snew director of education

ALMOST six months into one of the toughest assignments in Scottish education, Ronnie O'Connor shows no signs of dimmed enthusiasm. He is convinced he can make a difference to the job and that education can make a difference to Glasgow.

Only this week, part of his strategy began to take shape with the announcement of a pound;25 million deal in which Safeway will buy ground from the council in Cardonald for a new store and the city will build a replacement for Lourdes primary, create three new pre-school facilities and add an all-weather sports pitch to Lourdes Secondary.

This will be a palpable sign that the primary school estate, inevi-tably overlooked as the emphasis went on the pound;1 billion programme for the council's 29 secondaries, is now to be modernised. But it is not just the buildings that will receive attention: the upper primary, with one class teacher trying to cover 14 or 15 different disciplines in depth, does not impress Mr O'Connor.

Within the next two years, eight new primaries will be built, including five in a pound;25.6 million programme funded by conventional council borrowing terms not by private means. All will cater for 0-12s.

As someone who was in at the beginning of discussions with the Treasury to refurbish the entire secondary building stock through a public private partnership, he remains second to none in his strong defence of the huge investment he believes has given Glasgow's secondary schools quality accommodation and an ICT infrastructure that makes other authorities "green with envy".

Mr O'Connor, who is aged 52, acknowledges that the primary estate does require attention, but he cautions against unrealistic expectations. "There is a perception that it took just four years to complete the secondary rebuilding programme. In fact it took 14 years for us to reduce the number of secondary schools from 51 to the 29 we could afford to invest in."

Having switched from the education department to become the city's director of social work for three years, he believes this experience has given him a rounded view of what education needs to do to "make a difference" in an authority whose HMI report noted that 60 per cent of the population live in the 10 per cent of Scotland's most deprived postcode areas.

Seconded to the chief executive's department in the run-up to local government reorganisation seven years ago, he notes wryly: "I helped set up the structure for the education service at the time of reorganisation but, when I moved across to social work, even I found it difficult to access it."

He says candidly: "The education system is not as inclusive as it thinks it is. There are still too many professional barriers preventing agencies working together, particularly in delivering for the most vulnerable - looked-after children and the disabled, for example. Surely, in the age of technology, we can have the one-file child."

A modern languages teacher to trade, Mr O'Connor is a firm supporter of social inclusion and says Glasgow is beginning to work more holistically to put children and families first rather than the interests of agencies. He quotes admiringly from a primary head who told him: "We will never deliver social inclusion in this city if we make the child's needs fit the school rather than the school fit the needs of the child."

He cites the Sure Start programme which is linking education, social work and health for pre-fives. Glasgow's experimental "learning communities" and new community schools will also help, he suggests, although the two will have to be brought together. "Youngsters must have the basic skills to access the secondary curriculum, get qualifications and become economically active and independent. If we don't do that, the city will never survive."

Glasgow's director is a strong supporter of boosting the status of vocational education, another of the city's success stories. He feels there is a changing perception as demand for labour rockets in construction, plumbing and the service sector. "Youngsters need a passport to the world of work and jobs so they can become economically active - and Greek won't do it," he says.

But it is the connectedness between schools and the wider world that he believes holds the key to the future. He suggests the city council is taking a more joined-up view of the links between poverty, child welfare and education - and teachers can only benefit from that.

Breakfast clubs, clean drinking water in schools, free swimming and free fruit are part of a strategy which is a response to teachers' long-standing complaints that they cannot be expected to overcome the effects of poverty unaided.

"Money may not always be going directly into the classroom but it is going into the classroom via the child," he says. "Schools exist to provide social interaction for youngsters, to improve their social skills and to educate them. Education is a route out of poverty and that means poverty of attainment and poverty of aspiration as well as economic poverty."

He plans new departures which will bring expertise and resources from other agencies to bear on schools. There will also be an extension of the project at Lochend Community School in Easterhouse, where a social work assistant is based, to all 29 secondary school clusters, funded by the Scottish Executive's children's change fund.

Ronnie O'Connor's dual perspectives from two very different council services, allied to acute political antennae, make him uniquely placed to deal with some of the most intractable issues in Scottish education, although there are already signs that Glasgow pupils are beginning to turn a few educational corners with improvements such as rising literacy rates (TESS, January 31).

There will, of course, be obstacles. Mr O'Connor despairs of the demoralising effects of raw exam scores, especially in a city with such a scale of deprivation, and hopes for quick moves to introduce value-added results.

As for the teachers' settlement, he is still wrestling with it. "It's like trying to solve a Rubik cube puzzle in the dark," he comments.

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