Interview - Annette Bruton

16th December 2011 at 00:00
She has made a big impact in a short time as head of Aberdeen City's education service. But after only two years, Annette Bruton is off to pastures new as chief executive of the Care Inspectorate. Photography by Simon Price

Last year you suggested to TESS that this would be the last big career move. What changed?

This is a great job, a whirlwind of a job, which would easily have kept me happy. But the Care Inspectorate is a once-in-a-career opportunity. Almost my entire teaching career was around vulnerable children, vulnerable families - protecting people - and I know a thing or two about inspecting. I couldn't ignore it.

Is there any truth to suggestions that you'd become frustrated by the job?

Absolutely none. The local papers who wrote that wouldn't tell me their sources, but I'm certain it wasn't officers or anyone working closely with me. The notes I've received in recent weeks characterise me as enthusiastic, certainly not frustrated. There has been little to be frustrated about.

Former chief executive Sue Bruce also spent a short time in Aberdeen. Some councillors are concerned that the city can't hold onto high-quality people - should they be?

I don't think so. There's not a mass exodus. We've recruited an entire new heads of service team - a net gain in talent.

Aberdeen has become known for its financial troubles. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Aberdeen's been on a sound financial footing for two years. We recently got praise in two Audit Scotland reports, for financial planning and budgeting. I don't know if any other council has approved a five-year business plan, but we have.

Attainment has risen since you arrived. How has that been done?

Secondary schools - we still need to do this in primaries - have introduced very tight tracking systems for every child. We've introduced "improvement conferences" once a term, involving 120 lead managers, including heads - I'd see them as senior council officials. There's much more collegiate working with heads - we don't make decisions at headquarters. We're doing a complete overhaul of policies and guidance, so people are clear about what's expected. None of these things are innovative in themselves, but it's about the speed in bringing them together and the transformational change you can get as a result.

About pound;28 million of possible savings have been identified for education, culture and sport, on top of pound;8m agreed previously. Will it be possible to maintain, or improve on, attainment levels?

The thing that affects attainment most is quality of teaching, so, within the budget we've got we make sure it's the best we've got. There are lessons still to be learned on doing more for less, through benchmarking against other authorities. I'm confident we have the talent and direction of travel to sustain the improvements.

There is a proposed "redesign of professional staffing" in schools to save pound;2.15 million. What would this entail?

That follows on from the McCormac review's recommendation of more flexibility around staffing. Clearly, we couldn't do that unilaterally. But what we're proposing is to see where professionals other than teachers could contribute to children's learning, with the teacher in overall charge.

So a teacher remains in the room?

No. If you've got a 40-minute art lesson and a suitably-qualified person, then teachers could be doing marking and preparation. I'm a great advocate of teachers' professionalism, but I believe we need a different mix in primary schools. That's not to do with saving money, but looking at the team that can educate a child. Primary teachers can't be specialists in all areas.

Hundreds of teaching and pupil support posts have gone in recent years. How do you see staff morale?

A lot of the posts lost are due to falling rolls. The reduction in PSAs has been, to some extent, to bring us in line with other councils. I know our teachers work incredibly hard. I'm seeing creativity, innovation, quality of teaching and learning. I'm meeting parents really pleased with the quality of education, kids wildly enthusiastic about their schooling. But I wouldn't like to comment on morale, because everybody has their view of where it should be. I'm disturbed by coverage that takes a straight line from, "There's less money, therefore teachers have poor morale, therefore kids are getting a raw deal." That's not the reality I'm seeing.

Can Aberdeen offer children with special needs the support they need, having made so many cuts and shed so many jobs?

We've had a reduction in PSAs, but not within special schools. We spend 20 per cent of our school budget on special needs - at least equal to, if not better than, other authorities. That's for fewer than 5 per cent of the children. We have two smashing special schools. We've got a major project to completely overhaul our inclusion policy. We should measure ourselves by how we support our most vulnerable learners.

Haven't staff-pupil ratios changed?

We have moved staff-pupil ratios generally - not in all schools - in special classes, from 1:7 to 1:10. That was to try to reduce costs. But, depending on a child's needs, where that was proving problematic, we've tried to put more resources back in.

What are you most proud of about your time in Aberdeen?

The courage, creativity and innovation staff show. Instead of humming and hawing about an idea, people have a go.

Personal profile

Born: Haddington, 1955

Education: Ross High, Tranent; geography BEd run by Dundee College of Education and Dundee University

Career: Geography and economics teacher; learning support and special needs roles, Lothian Regional Council; Stirling Council quality assurance manager; senior manager, Higher Still national development programme; HMIE chief inspector; Aberdeen's director of education, culture and sport, 2009-11; becomes chief executive, Care Inspectorate, 2012.

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