Diplomat defeats the old guard

5th December 1997 at 00:00
David Henderson reports from the Association of Directors of Education annual conference in Dunblane

The streets of the Bridge of Weir presented Shelagh Rae with a challenge. One night she was out on school board duty, searching for a school - a scenario familiar to directors of education new to an area. She became lost and asked directions of an elderly man.

"Are you in education?" he enquired.

"Yes," she replied.

"I used to work with Hugh Fairlie, you know," he said. Fairlie was one of her predecessors 25 years ago, before Strathclyde intervened in the educational history of Renfrewshire.

"I'm the director of education," Mrs Rae explained.

The old man could not resist it. "Why are there so many women directors of education now?" he asked.

A diplomatic answer saw the off the old man's challenge. However, women directors are still in a significant minority - 27 of the 32 directors of education in Scotland are male and Mrs Rae has become their first woman president in more than 80 years.

Women occupy the lower directorship ranks and few make the top posts.

Liz Reid, who took over in Lothian before moving onto Edinburgh, was the first woman director. Anne Wilson of Dundee is the ADES general secretary.

Mrs Rae, 47, is described as a tenacious and forceful personality. Some say she needs these attributes in her job as director in the local government battlefield of Paisley. Reports of sleaze have rocked the town, and spilled over into education committees, yet in schools policy, there is little disagreement between the competing parties. Mrs Rae sails a delicate course.

Renfrewshire was once one mighty county, now it is split in three and relations between East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde and the Paisley-based authority can be strained. Strangely, a dispute over the retention of outdoor education centres caused one of the biggest bust-ups.

If a robust nature is vital for survival in her own council, it has been a valuable feature in fighting off internal challenges in ADES. Critics have argued for a more forceful, up-front role but Mrs Rae maintains the current party line of working effectively through the channels. "With 32 councils, you do have different ideas coming forward," Mrs Rae explains.

She believes ADES has to pick issues carefully, such as funding, Higher Still and standards. "We've got to recognise there will be a diversity of opinion but there are big issues we do agree on."

Two years ago, the future of ADES was in doubt during local government reform, now it is thriving with a membership of around 200. As Brian Wilson, the education minister, observed: "I never knew there were so many directors of education."

Mrs Rae believes in partnership and is looking forward to liaising with ministers on Labour's agenda following the years of isolation under the Tory administrations. A former delegate to the Educational Institute of Scotland AGM, she is also keen to take teachers with her on issues like the reform of promoted posts.

"The concept of 'best value' in local authorities will put school structures under the microscope," she admits.

Her own teaching experience in mathematics departments in Edinburgh and West Lothian secondaries was a stepping stone to the Lothian advisory service. Then she moved to Central Region where she became assistant director in charge of post-16 education and, latterly, schools.

In a sense, she has come home to Paisley, having gone to primary school in the town in the days when the old guard prevented women from rising to the top jobs. Now she's arrived, the traditionalists of the Bridge of Weir will just have to lump it.

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