Independent schools' helmsman is prepared for choppy waters ahead

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
The new director of SCIS is set for a sea change in the private education sector

John Edward freely admits he does not have the background in education policy and practice of his predecessor, Judith Sischy.

What he brings to the post of director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools is his experience working at the interface of different institutions - the political ones, public and private sectors, higher education and charities.

"Trying to make two sides understand each other is the space I like being in," he says.

"My interest in the post was more where the sector sits in the broader political community in Scotland," he adds, pointing to the fact that nearly every aspect of Scottish education is undergoing change of some sort at the moment - from the curriculum to teacher education, even the Care Commission.

Edward describes himself as a "modest Scottish historian" who became a late convert to the need to learn modern languages - a cause he shares with Mrs Sischy, who would evangelise passionately on the subject.

He learnt Italian in Siena on a year-long language course alongside Serbs, Croats and Koreans - the emphasis was on the spoken word, rather than the written; brushed up his French when he arrived in Brussels; and had to learn Spanish when he married his Colombian wife.

He remarks that his experience of people of other nationalities, whom he met while working in Brussels, was that they treated picking up a language just as we would learn to drive. Speaking another language was just another tool for them, unlike many people in Britain who still treat it as a subject.

Edward cites two former teachers as the main influences on his life. History teacher George Harris (just about to retire from Edinburgh Academy) made him understand the relevance of the past to the present. His English teacher, Henry Marsh (now a published poet), made reading literature not a chore but a pleasure, and influenced his life post- school.

Three months into his new job, he relishes the fact that the independent education sector is treated as a serious player wherever he goes.

"There are 35,000 children being educated in the independent sector, so we feel we have as valid a voice as anyone else in education," he says.

"There tends to be, when talking about independent education, a theological argument about its rights and wrongs," he comments. "It's not an argument I would deny, but we don't need to have it day in and day out."

People assume that independent schools are all about a drive for great results, he says, but parents - and he includes himself in this - are less interested in exam passes or facilities than whether the ethos of the school feels right for them.

Two years into the recession and there is no evidence that independent schools have been hit disproportionately hard, as some predicted would happen. But it will not be immune from cuts to the public sector: "As many of our parents work in the public sector as anywhere else," he points out.

In difficult times, families will cut back in other areas but are less likely to sacrifice their child's schooling, if they have committed themselves to going down the independent route in the first place, he believes.

Compliance with the requirement to show "public benefit", under the rules set out by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, continues to be a "pre-eminent" issue for SCIS members. But he acknowledges the huge benefits of having a good working relationship with OSCR. In England, relations between the Charity Commissioner and some schools are so bad that they have taken legal action against the commission.

Independent schools in Scotland have had to rethink their relationship with their local community, leading them to get rid of "anachronistic articles or ancient legacies", he says: "It's been difficult for schools and OSCR to pin down exactly what is being measured. But we have seen best practice from schools which have been through the test and a lot of quite innovative things have been done."

More widely, his ambition is to ensure that the individual voices of expertise from within SCIS are heard in the coming debates.

There will be much to speak about - already the UK elections and the change of government are having an impact on education in England. For independent schools south of the border, the drive to create more self- governing academies will inevitably have a knock-on effect.

But there are also cross-border consequences for Scotland from decisions by the Westminster Government - for example, plans by England's Education Secretary Michael Gove to abolish the General Teaching Council for England and their implications for regulating the fitness of teachers to teach.

Closer to home, education is likely to loom large in the Scottish parliamentary elections next May and in the local government elections the following year.

In John Edward, SCIS believes it has someone with the right political experience to make sure the voice of the independent sector is heard.


Age: 41

Family: Father is Sir David Edward, prominent Scottish judge and, until recently, chairman of SCIS; his wife is from Colombia and he has two children, aged eight and six.

Education: Edinburgh Academy; St Andrew's University - MA in Scottish history; Glasgow University - M.Phil in Scottish studies; Siena University - year in Italian language and literature.

Career: eight years in Brussels - with Scotland Europa, the Scottish presence in the EU, and the European Policy Centre; parliamentary manager for Scottish Enterprise 2000-03; head of the UK office of the European Parliament in Edinburgh 2003-09.

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