Eileen Prior

7th October 2011 at 01:00
The executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council is a public relations guru, a mother-of-three and campaigner for social justice. With a background in communications, this is one area she is keen to tackle. Photography by Fraser Band

Given the findings of SPTC surveys highlighting parents' concerns over teachers' abilities to deliver Curriculum for Excellence, how do you think Michael Russell should address their worries?

The big issue with Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and the new qualifications is around communication. We know that parents get most of their information about anything related to their child's education from the teacher they deal with at the school, so if there's an issue it's about how information is coming through that channel. If parents are concerned about how willing or capable teachers are to deliver the curriculum, it's because teachers are saying they are unsure. We need to improve communication. We are still in the grip of "eduspeak" and we need to cut through that.

What's the most common complaint you have heard from parents since you became executive director of the SPTC last year?

I think what all of them come down to is problems around communication and relationships. It's about not keeping people in the loop - that probably accounts for about 80 per cent of the issues that come through.

Do you think parents want heads to have more powers to run schools under the proposed devolved school management?

I don't think there's an appetite for wholesale change to how our schools are managed, but parents are keen to see heads having more power to make decisions locally.

The latest budget cuts are worrying for everyone but, as the mother of a child with Down's syndrome, do you think parents of children with additional support needs are particularly concerned about their impact?

Yes, I think so. Parents feel the whole area of additional support needs is under-funded and their children's support is constantly under threat. There is always a concern about that. We have nailed our colours to the mast and said that we want a fully-inclusive education system and if we want that, then the fundamental level of support to allow children to participate in schools has to be there.

With ongoing threats to strike over pensions and the possibility that teaching unions may reject the McCormac review, are parents worried that they face a winter of discontent?

Yes, I think they are. The last time there was strike action it did a lot of damage and I think the same will be true this time around. It's incredibly disruptive for children's learning and their families, and of course the teachers. Although parents are very supportive of their child's class teacher, there is not a huge amount of sympathy for teachers in this situation. I think striking would be a very dangerous road for them to go down.

What do you think has been your greatest achievement since you joined the SPTC?

I think possibly the thing that's going to be most important is the network of people that we've started to put in place around Scotland to provide information sessions to support parents. We talk about parental involvement, but you can only achieve that if they have knowledge.

You became a lay member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland in 2005. How do you think parents view its plans to speed up competence hearings?

We don't get a lot of complaints about teachers and I don't think it's a massive issue. When parents come to us, I think the generally-accepted view is that local authorities and schools do not deal adequately with teachers who are not performing (well enough). Parents have to know that the system will be used properly to help a teacher improve, or - if that doesn't work - to get them out.

You have been very successful in PR, advocacy and education. Have you ever considered entering politics?

No. You could say that's because I'm a coward but I would not be interested in politics. My priorities lie with my own family and I think politics makes family life incredibly difficult.

How do you like to relax?

I love to read and I love listening to music and going to concerts. I also like good food, a glass of wine and good company. I'm from a fairly extended family and there's nothing I like better than getting them all together.

What are your memories of your own school days?

I did not like school particularly. I never felt very engaged; it was a necessary evil and I think that's reflected in my performance. It was neither good nor bad, I just did what I had to and left as soon as I had my Highers. I was from a rural area and I don't think the world was opened up for us.

If you could be granted one wish to improve Scotland's schools, what would it be?

Better outcomes for young people are what it should all be about, but there are all sorts of barriers in the way of that happening. My wish would be to find a way through those barriers. One of the things we need to do is to change the mindset in schools, stop paying lip service to parental involvement and trying to manage that relationship to death. I'm sure that to many schools it feels like a Pandora's box that they really don't want to open but, in reality, I think the truth is that it's rarely as bad as they imagine.


Born: Campbeltown, 1959

Education: St Kieran's, Campbeltown; Campbeltown Grammar; Glasgow College of Technology (now Glasgow Caledonian University), communication studies

Career: Assistant editor, John Menzies internal newspaper, 1980-84; PR account executive at Harrison Cowley, 1984-85, then at PR Consultants Scotland, various promotions up to company director; self-employed PR consultant, 1994-2010; executive director of SPTC since 2010.

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