New breed with a new mission
"It's difficult to take over any post, especially from a boyhood hero, " John Travers announced to his fellow directors last week in his customary relaxed style. The new president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland was referring to the slightly more greying Bob McKay, director in Perth and Kinross.
Mr McKay is the abrasive and opinionated Glaswegian with the acute sense of humour who has charted the directors' association through a difficult first year of local government reform. Mr Travers, director in North Ayrshire and just turned 48 - the average age of the new-look ADES - has been a perfect foil as vice-president.
Fellow directors describe him as "a perfect gentleman" and his abilities have caught the eye nationally where he has taken over as chairman of the Higher Still information and publicity group. He sits on the General Teaching Council as a local authority spokesman.
North Ayrshire has been pushed to the forefront of educational debate after agreeing to pilot the nursery voucher scheme, an initiative strongly criticised by Mr Travers in his address. It provided 700 nursery places where none existed but at a cost grossly underestimated by the Government. It is a scheme no one wants and "a major drain on time", he said.
Within weeks of taking over, Mr Travers - who doubles as depute chief executive - was faced with the threatened opt out of Gateside primary, near Beith, following a local wrangle. A packed public meeting in the village hall saw him give the kind of assured defence of local authority provision any education convener would have admired. Only a couple of parents eventually voted for opting out.
Mr Travers is a product of the system he vociferously defends. A native of Dumbarton, he went to St Pat's, took the usual route to Glasgow University and then the unusual route into teaching via six years in the computing industry. He taught English at Holyrood in Glasgow before moving into learning support at St Luke's, Barrhead.
After a spell as assistant head at St Pat's, Coatbridge, he joined the technical and vocational education initiative, a promotion ladder that is common to the new breed in the directorate. He has been in senior management for 10 years, in Renfrew, then Lanark and latterly Fife.
As ADES president he is keen to emphasise the role of professional education adviser to anyone who wants to listen. The current concerns are selection in schools, Higher Still and preserving the education service against cuts. "We are a non-political body and the unique thing is that we are able to speak with a professional voice outwith the political context," he says.
The number one issue last weekend was staffing, particularly in secondaries, which directors now see as a major stumbling block to educational progress. It will take a sweet-talker like Mr Travers to open discussions on such a sensitive subject.
Nearer home, as budgets tighten, Mr Travers hopes to preserve extracurricular dimensions such as music instruction and hold on to the European aspects, including modern language teaching across primaries. Learning support, not surprisingly, is another priority.
The measured and lucid approach of the new president will be put to the test. DH