Julia Swan

14th October 2011 at 01:00
Six years ago, Julia Swan moved from England to become education director of Falkirk Council. As she prepares for retirement at the end of this year, she shares her assessment of education systems north and south of the border and reveals she found Scotland `professionally liberating'.

How far do you see school management being devolved?

I was used to a highly-devolved system in England, some of it good and some highly artificial. Some things schools can't replicate - it just made your figures look good but you still went on providing the service. I think governance will have to be looked at. In England you have governing bodies with very specific legal responsibilities for budgets and so on, but not in Scotland. That's quite a thorny issue - it probably works well in big secondaries, but in a tiny primary would you get the calibre of people from the community willing to do that kind of thing?

What worked well?

It gave heads more responsibility and accountability, and the flexibility to create staffing structures in a way that met the school's needs. The issue for me is what happens when it goes wrong. If you devolve more you've got to think about your safety net.

David Cameron's review has mentioned recruitment as one area that could be devolved - a good idea?

If you're going to hire you've got to fire. What do you do with surplus staff, or staff not capable of doing the job? What do you do with someone who has 50 per cent attendance? What about transfers? At the minute, we handle how we move surplus staff about the system. Employment law is extremely complicated - I depend on specialist advice. You could do it but there are a lot of things you'd have to be clear about. It would be a big culture change for heads, who are primarily leaders of learning.

There's talk about clusters as organising structures. What do you think of that?

To me, that's like lots and lots of little local authority systems within a council area, which is more expensive. Where's the money coming from? My budget is going down. There are advantages to clusters for sharing resources, working together, having a common agenda, having professional dialogue - but a lot of that happens now.

Educational consultant Keir Bloomer has mooted a national funding council for schools, akin to the Scottish Funding Council. What do you think?

They've never managed it anywhere else, not in England or Wales. There's a world of difference between a few colleges, with big identities and big budgets, and hundreds of little tiny schools. I don't think it's practical.

A TESS columnist, Alex Wood, said heads were expected to be "uncritical, conformist apparatchiks" after being pulled up by his local authority for a piece he had written (2 September). Does he have a point?

People are entitled to express professional opinions. In Scotland, heads do have their opinions taken on board. But a local authority is your employer. If you're a senior manager in RBS and you say unfortunate things about RBS, they're not going to let it go.

Are there too many education authorities?

I've worked in huge authorities and small city unitaries. I like Falkirk's size (it has eight secondaries). I've worked in authorities with 400 schools - how do I ever build a relationship with headteachers? You can be too big and too small. The last local government reorganisation was very expensive and time-consuming. I'd have to be really convinced.

Having worked in England for many years, how does Scotland compare?

I've felt professionally liberated here. I think the system is much more professionally rewarding and flexible. I like that there are only 32 authorities and you can all get in a room. It is much more about everybody talking to each other in Scotland. I wouldn't have known many civil servants in England; if you want to talk about something here, you can get on a train and go and talk to someone at Victoria Quay. There's far more willingness to talk about the difficult things and how we might resolve them; in England, you got told.

Next year's local authority budgets will be tough. How difficult will it be to maintain standards?

That is a difficulty, and local government elections coming up makes it even more difficult. We have discussions with headteachers at an early stage to see what we could stop doing or do less of, what's most important to keep. Have we got the most efficient staffing model? Could we do things with Glow, distance learning, purchasing processes, the way we procure? Our priority is to protect children's education. I've lost probably 25 per cent of my officers here, and we've explored different ways or working so that we haven't had to look at the front line.

Why aren't there more female education directors in Scotland?

I don't know. I don't know if it's about recruitment or women just not wanting to do it. In my first full-time job, my principal - I was in FE - said I was the first person he'd ever employed with children under five. The world has changed a lot since then, although I still think it's tough. You did the same work as a man but didn't get much credit for going home and looking after children.

What has been the biggest highlight of your time in Falkirk?

The fact that we're seen as a successful service and that our schools are successful is probably the biggest buzz I have.

Personal profile

Born: London, 1950

Education: Taskers Grammar School for Girls in south-west Wales; qualified as science teacher at Trinity College, Carmarthen; diploma in mathematical education at what is now Derby University; MA in curriculum studies at Loughborough University

Career: Worked across Midlands as teacher and in various special needs and community development roles. Derby City assistant director for inclusion and school improvement before moving to Falkirk.

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