When a local authority is facing stinging criticism from its own staff, the last person it wants in its midst is a journalist with a notepad, writes Henry Hepburn
Yet there was a refreshing spirit of openness and free debate at North Ayrshire Council's leadership conference last week. Not only did the authority let The TESS sit at a table of headteachers and other staff getting things off their chests in no uncertain terms, but education director Carol Kirk came in half-way through and joined in a robust exchange of views.
"She's always at the end of the phone and she does listen," said Linda Crone, headteacher at Stevenston's Ardeer Primary, who had earlier been a forcible critic of the authority.
A consistent theme was the impact of social problems on schools' performance and a feeling that the authority expected outstanding results without taking full account of other issues.
Mrs Crone had described how much of her job involved "firefighting" and that there were weeks when "I don't get near attainment".
"We should get more support from the authority when we don't reach targets," said Lin Denny, headteacher of Mayfield Primary in Saltcoats.
"They're just interested in statistics," added Cumbrae Primary headteacher Allison Nicholson.
The problem of drug-addicted parents was getting worse, according to Tom Gillies, headteacher at Caledonia Primary, also in Saltcoats. "There should be more recognition of the reality of the job," he said.
Brian McNaught, headteacher of Garnock Academy in Kilbirnie, said: "If it's achievement we're concerned about, we have to be brave enough to invest in that and slim down the number of priorities we've got." Eric Allan, headteacher at Saltcoats's St Matthew's Academy, called for better links with support organisations and "more and effective" consultation.
Ms Kirk, who has been in her job since Christmas and was previously in charge of inclusion, was not afraid to make her views known.
When one teacher complained that schools were expected to perform at the same level after many of their "quality" students had departed, she retorted: "I don't think it is acceptable to set aspirations lower than over the previous five years - I don't think that has any professional validity."
She argued that aspirations - if not expectations - should be high, regardless of pupils' abilities, otherwise: "What does that say? That you can't make a difference to young people's lives?"