Gayle Gorman

17th May 2013 at 01:00
Aberdeen City Council's director of education, culture and sport talks about why the Scottish and English curricula are worlds apart, how she has increased attainment and her views on students using mobile devices in schools. Interview by Henry Hepburn Photography by Simon Price

Why did you return to Scotland from England after being away for so long?

A combination of factors. I wanted to come home - although I'm from Glasgow, I've got family in Aberdeen. And I wanted to work in Scottish education, particularly given some of the education policies south of the border.

What has struck you must about Scottish education?

Curriculum for Excellence really chimes with me - in terms of keeping the child at the heart of the learning journey. I read it at the same time as the national curriculum was being revised in England; they couldn't be further apart.

What do you think as you see Michael Gove's reforms unfolding?

The politicising of some of the educational agenda is leading to strategies and approaches that really don't have education at the heart - although some innovations, such as the pupil premium, are positive.

You helped to increase attainment in Cambridgeshire - what did you do?

Large-scale attainment-raising programmes. We were focusing on community approaches to literacy, such as literacy champions. These could be people working in housing, welfare staff or school crossing patrols - anyone involved in meeting people. Another big thing was ICT, and significant staff development.

What did you do with ICT?

We had innovative projects around handheld devices, to take learning in and out of school. Also projects around visual literacy, such as a children's film festival.

By how much did attainment improve?

Cambridgeshire had been below national average on all measures - on a downward trend for five years. We stopped the decline and moved above national average.

What's your view on internet restrictions and students using mobile devices?

We need to ensure our schools, curriculum and teachers engage with young people in the 21st-century world they live in. I've been quite surprised by a lot of the restrictions in Scotland, compared with the more autonomous system in England, and I'm certainly working with colleagues to see if we can trailblaze a little bit.

Even some proponents of ICT in classrooms fear it could be a logistical nightmare to get lots of different mobile devices operating simultaneously. What do you think?

Any technological barrier can be overcome. It's about using media that young people respect and use, and how risk-averse you want to be. You have to teach children about bias and the internet's dangers. If we keep them in a sheltered environment, we'll never do that. If the child's restricted in school, they go on their iPad at home and the whole world's there.

There's a suggestion that Aberdeen found it tough to get supply teachers, that at one point up to a third of requests were not being met. What impact is that having?

It's been quite significant. This term it's improving - in winter terms, there's always an increase in teacher sickness. But we've put strategies in place: we're recruiting probationers early; we've gone early to advertise for permanent, full-time staff for shortage subjects; we're looking at a different interviewing strategy; and we're trying proactively to market and advertise Aberdeen.

Is there any danger of students being sent home?

We would always avoid that at all costs.

Some Aberdeen headteachers are spending a sizeable part of their working week teaching. Is it possible for them to run their schools properly?

It's still possible for them to run their schools. In terms of best practice, of course we wouldn't want that, and that's why we've put in some of these measures around staffing issues - so that they've got extra capacity in the school from day one, should we have similar issues next winter.

In recent years, Aberdeen has made big cuts to pupil support assistants (PSAs). Do children with additional needs get the support they require?

We have been very lucky in that we got some additional ring-fenced funding from council for PSAs, allowing us to avoid any further reduction. All of our children's needs are being absolutely met by the schools they are in.

There is a feeling that Aberdeen has pressed ahead too quickly with Getting It Right For Every Child's (Girfec's) requirement for teachers to be a 'named person', with a big impact on workload. How would you respond?

We've followed national guidance - I don't think we're particularly ahead of anyone else. We've had a seconded head doing a review of Girfec and how it's working. There are elements that are working really well and others we have to iron out.

What's the key to raising literacy levels?

Teacher subject knowledge and confidence. If we can support our teachers to understand their own abilities in their use of language, that confidence, enthusiasm and focus is passed on to the children.

You have a diploma in children's literature - what is your favourite children's book?

We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. I love it because of the rhyme and repetition, which young children pick up on and join in with spontaneously.


Born: Glasgow

Education: Braidfield High, Clydebank; BEd, University of Glasgow; Advanced Diploma in Children's Literature, Homerton College, University of Cambridge

Career: Primary teacher; curriculum adviser, Suffolk; lead senior adviser, Essex; various jobs at the Department for Education in England; national senior director for literacy in England; director of learning, Cambridgeshire; Aberdeen's education director since 2013.

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