TES Scotland is sponsoring today's Making the Connection conference on teaching, learning and staff development - Neil Munro opens our seven-page report
Neil Munro talks to Mike Baughan, just appointed chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum
A man who has bagged 118 Munros, bungee-jumped and abseiled is used to looking at life from great heights. But Mike Baughan, the new 53-year-old chief executive of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, is not one for looking down on others. His first, almost symbolic act, was to remove the special chief executive's parking space at the council's Dundee offices.
Mr Baughan, appointed to take over from Cameron Harrison in January, is preoccupied with the SCCC's profile, not his own. Nonetheless his past is highly relevant to the kind of organisation he believes the council ought to be - as is the fact that he is married to a classroom teacher who works in Madras College in St Andrews.
His background in English teaching and guidance in Dundee schools culminated in what he clearly regards as 10 highly productive years as head of Webster's High in Kirriemuir - "a classic Scottish burgh comprehensive". His subsequent rise in the SCCC has been meteoric, seconded only two years ago to revise the 11-year-old secondary curriculum guidelines - the infamous "yellow peril" named for its cover.
"Eighteen months ago, I taught in a classroom," he points out. "I had a timetabled English class every year I was in Webster's High and I also had my fair share of 'please takes'.
"I had a number of motives. First of all, I liked teaching. Secondly, I believed it was important to signal to staff, parents and pupils that the head put a strong emphasis on teaching. Thirdly, it's important that headteachers should have practical experience of what goes on in the classroom."
Mr Baughan says his experience has reinforced his determination that "there must be more appreciation of the demands of teaching. Teachers are on show all the time in front of a class, and they deliver high standards. It is now commonplace to say that pupils should be praised for what they do well in order to motivate them, and I believe the same is true of teachers. But all too often the emphasis is on the negative, which has a debilitating and depressing effect on a hard-pressed profession.
"It's very, very important to establish respect for teachers. It is not just a matter of their morale, but also of the impact on pupils' education if quality teachers are not attracted into a dispirited and demoralised profession."
Mr Baughan has inherited a strong SCCC emphasis on teaching and learning which he intends to reinforce. The council's widely-acclaimed report Teaching for Effective Learning is one of its best sellers.
"We should concentrate our efforts on specific tasks which make an identifiable difference in the classroom," he says. "Teachers will always appreciate support and help which makes their job easier. I strongly believe in the Scottish approach of eschewing a prescribed curriculum and operating flexibly within education authority and national guidelines.
"But flexibility is not an excuse for laissez-faire and woolly thinking. Young people themselves don't like vagueness and they want to experience achievement. So schools must have a sense of purpose. They must see themselves as learning communities."
Mr Baughan comes to the SCCC job at a crucial time. Not only is the "yellow peril" about to be revisited, but the council is in the throes of one of the Scottish Office's periodic five-year reviews. Although the council is the Secretary of State's principal independent adviser on the curriculum, its recent history is one of being handed tasks by the inspectorate as HMI emerged to be the key influence over programmes such as 5-14 and Higher Still.
But the new chief executive is determined that "we must make a difference as far as schools are concerned". Apart from learning and teaching, he emphasises two other priorities - developing a positive ethos in schools, and improving links with education authorities.
Mr Baughan adds: "For us, that means going with the grain, making our contribution so that potential ad hoc and piecemeal developments are embedded in the curricular structures that already exist. We should always remember that one person's good idea is somebody else's workload if the implications are not thought through coherently."
This natural caution partly explains why the revised curricular guidelines for secondary schools, on which work began two years ago, have been so long delayed. There was, of course, the small matter of last May's general election. This was followed by some Scottish Office documents which had large implications for the curriculum, notably the HMI report Achieving Success in S1 and S2 and the little-noticed but potentially seminal proposals on education for work launched last November. In addition, core skills were still being hammered out.
Mr Baughan would not be drawn on the revised guidelines, which are now expected to see the light of day early in the next session.
"From the perspective of a former headteacher, I do not believe schools will see the new guidelines as threatening but as a user-friendly and readable document. It will be aimed at teachers not just at heads as the present guidelines are."
The question the SCCC now faces, as it comes through the Scottish Office review and awaits the impact of a Scottish parliament, is whether it is still loved where it matters. The council has been evaluating the effectiveness of its curriculum files, issued twice a year to schools, and found perhaps to its own astonishment that 98 per cent of schools use material from the files. Each school takes 12 items on average.
But Mr Baughan says he "doesn't want to hear just good news" and was anxious to find out what the other 2 per cent thought. The council discovered that these were mainly single-teacher schools where the heads said they did not have time to look into the files.
"So we have the paradox that teachers don't have the time to look at the very material which has been designed to help them - and they are good, conscientious teachers who are interested in development. That's therefore an issue for us to address."
Schools will be relieved to hear that Mr Baughan is happy to be judged as someone who has his feet firmly on the ground - quite a feat for a bungee-jumping Munro-bagger.