No short-term troubleshooter

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Annette Bruton, Aberdeen City Council's straight-talking education director, wants higher attainment from underperformers

Annette Bruton's task wasn't so much to steady the ship when she arrived in Aberdeen - she had to guide an entirely new ship into the water.

Aberdeen City Council had become infamous for its "neighbourhood" structure - which for years meant there was no such thing as an education director - as well as its financial profligacy.

Since stepping into the revived role, which also covers culture and sport, she has earned widespread plaudits. Cynics might claim Aberdeen's headteachers would be glad of any education director, but there is no shortage of people attesting that she is well suited to the job.

Mrs Bruton, 54, arrived last August from HMIE, where she was admired as "straightforward, fair-minded and collegiate". She trusted others to get on with what they were good at, and was open to new ideas.

Her grasp of the "vision thing" has impressed Aberdonians: people know where they are headed. Crucially, having inspected most of Scotland's education authorities, "she's really got the inside track on what's going on nationally".

They describe a down-to-earth director, whose approachability is untainted by "false bonhomie" - a far cry, they say, from some of the stuffier characters to have reached the upper echelons of civic power.

If there is one concern, it's that she works so hard. Long hours are extended by evening visits, perhaps to a cultural event or a youth group; Mrs Bruton says these are essential "if you're really going to understand what the job is".

She says her style is "direct, open, energetic, enthusiastic". Certainly, she does not dilute her priorities for Aberdeen with conciliatory council- speak: "Our kids are underperforming - I really want to get our attainment up as quickly as we possibly can."

Neither did she mince words at a recent conference organised by the city's Northfield Academy, when asked how improvement could be identified: "If it's not happening in the classroom, it's not happening."

All the processes in the world, she explains, count for nothing without a clear impact on pupils: "The last place I want to be in a school is in the headteacher's office," she says. I want to be in a classroom, asking awkward questions."

Mrs Bruton hails from a mining family in the East Lothian village of Pencaitland, where education was venerated as the way to a better future. Her parents would proudly recall that, from her earliest days, Annette had wanted to be a teacher.

She became a geography teacher, but there was a dalliance with newspapers. For a few months in the 1970s, she worked in advertising for The Scotsman and Edinburgh's Evening News. She extols the value of work outside teaching, having gained new skills while in advertising: "I learned how to persuade people to do things."

Her roles since then have included learning support (an area which remains a "personal mission") for the former Lothian Regional Council, service manager for quality assurance in Stirling Council's children's services, and senior manager in the Higher Still national development programme.

She is proud to have been at HMIE, where she arrived in 2001, during a time when it "changed dramatically" as her boss, Graham Donaldson, espoused the benefits of partnership working with local authorities.

But she had no intention of going after his "very strategic" job. In the final big move of her career, Mrs Bruton wanted to get closer to where she had started: "It sounds a bit pious, but I really was missing the cut and thrust of education."

Having inspected education authorities across Scotland, she could see beyond the damning headlines about Aberdeen: "I knew exactly what I was taking on. There's a lot more right than there is wrong."

The prospect of working with culture, heritage and sport was a factor in her move north - "because then you're really talking about place- shaping".

There was appeal, too, in working with the "can-do" Sue Bruce, the city council's chief executive since late 2008. Mrs Bruton knew "Sue could make a big difference", having seen how, as education director in East Dunbartonshire, she responded to the aftermath of a difficult inspection of the education authority.

Mrs Bruton's old job allowed her a close-up view of best practice around the country, and how other authorities turned things around. Aberdeen, it became clear, needed leadership and direction. There was lots of good practice, but it wasn't being shared between schools.

But Mrs Bruton does not see herself as a short-term troubleshooter. She wants to build a school estate that will last, and pupils are being asked what learning will look like decades from now. "We're trying to be flexible enough for a future that we can't be certain of," she says.

Mrs Bruton, who has a flat in the city centre, goes home to the Borders twice a month to spend time with her husband, a principal guidance teacher at Dalkeith High, and three grown-up sons. Her passions away from work are quilting and textile art - she revels in "the joy of having created something" - and music.

She grew up adoring the hard-rocking likes of Black Sabbath, Cream and Deep Purple; top of last year's Christmas wish list was the latest Muse album (ironically, the city's last education director, John Stodter, is a hard rock aficionado, and even plays in a band himself).

The best live band she ever saw was Free. Their signature tune, encouragingly for Aberdeen's schools, is "All Right Now".

Henry Hepburn,

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