It's all about contol

20th July 2007 at 01:00
Scotland has the advantage of being small and therefore operates on a much more human scale

When I applied for a job in Scotland, it was a bit of a shot in the dark. I knew little about the Scottish education system, but I knew I wanted a new challenge. It felt right despite comments like "no one gets into Scotland from England" and "I can't believe you're doing this".

I was surprised and delighted when Falkirk Council offered me the post of director of education services. Armed with a volume of Scottish Education Post-Devolution, I drove north in January 2005 and began my adventure.

My first impression was how warm and welcoming everyone was, from the BT man who explained where the supermarket was, to the colleagues at every level in education. It is easy to undervalue the professional networks you build up over a long career until suddenly you have to start again. Scotland has the advantage of being small and operates much more on a human scale, so it was relatively easy to make connections.

My second impression was that everyone seemed to have been to school, university or taught with everyone else. This was helpful in that I could easily get into the history of things, but there don't seem to be many secrets.

One of the most powerful characteristics of the education system in Scotland is its sense of community. It is possible to get most of the directors of education and Scottish Executive officials in a room together and talk about policies and practice in a way that I never experienced in England, particularly at a national level.

I believe this, coupled with an intrinsic respect for the education profession and a view that we can all make a contribution, has given me more professional freedom to innovate and find local solutions than I have ever experienced. That is also evident when I visit classrooms. The micro- management of the Department for Education and Skills (as was) in England and the assumption that the centre knew best is an approach I don't miss. Having experienced the introduction of the national curriculum and the literacy strategy, through volumes of manuals and guidance, the process of developing A Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland has been interesting.

There will not be many countries where, in the process of developing the curriculum, you can find eight-year-olds who can explain its aims and how they relate to what they are doing in the classroom.

The monitoring regime in England through regional and national government, with endless targets and plans and a plethora of co-ordinators for every national strategy, was a source of stress for me.

When I received my first letter about stocktaking meetings from the Scottish Executive, my blood pressure rose as my experience of such meetings was a painful day of detailed accounting for targets, expenditure and plans. It turned out to be an interesting discussion about what was happening and a mutual exchange of views.

I don't miss Ofsted and it has taken me time, a follow-through inspection and the second round of education authority inspections to appreciate that HMIE is happy to engage in dialogue and professional discussion as part of the inspection process.

While I'm not about to under-estimate the challenge of the new inspection framework for integrated children's services, at least I am confident that I will be able to play my part in getting it right.

The challenges that we have to tackle are much the same as in England, such as secondary attainment, behaviour, quality of learning and teaching, meeting the needs of vulnerable children and young people. The difference is the willingness to debate, innovate and share practice at every level and not to assume that the "powers that be" have all the answers.

Of course there are things I'd like to see improve but, after two and half years of working in the Scottish system, I have found it liberating and enjoyable.

I'm having fun and I'm not going back.

Julia Swan is director of education services in Falkirk.

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