Profile - 'Steely' contender shows her mettle

7th February 2014 at 00:00
Union boss-to-be has `cloth-eared' qualifications body in her sights

A lawyer poised to become the new general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) has used her first interview to attack the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), accusing it of "bragging" about its achievements while dismissing teachers' concerns over curricular reform.

TESS can reveal that the union's preferred candidate is Sheila Mechan, a "steely" employment law specialist with no teaching background but experience at the sharp end of trade union negotiations.

Ms Mechan said the SQA had been "dismissive, even cloth-eared" about concerns over new National qualifications, with teachers "left holding the baby".

"There seems to be a lack of direction in equipping teachers to deliver pupils' assessments," she said, having pored over the authority's website. "The SQA is saying, `Everything will be OK' - it's a bit emperor's new clothes."

Ms Mechan said that the SQA's stance was "we've done our bit", with the onus on teachers to make Nationals work.

Her appointment as general secretary should be confirmed on 19 February as no other candidates have come forward.

Speaking to TESS, Ms Mechan highlighted an SQA web page that lists the body's achievements since 2006, including: development of 197 qualifications; 600,000 visits to the website's subject pages; and SQA having attended more than 700 meetings and 15 events.

"The SQA seemed more concerned with public perception and bragging about what they'd done," she said. "I found the statistics meaningless and not even that impressive. They've had 5,000 `target engagements' - I've a mind to report them to the Plain English Campaign."

Ms Mechan said she would be measured in her approach, adding that she has learned "valuable lessons" from working on employment conditions and rights in London with the NUT teaching union, a "world-class organisation" that did not let politicians decide its agenda. She would raise the SSTA's profile through "structured campaigns", she explained.

"(Education secretary for England) Michael Gove's department makes pronouncements, announcements and threats several times a day, and you could get drawn into a Twitter battle," she said. "Some things are worth a quick riposte, but it can descend into a slanging match and become pretty undignified.

"We have our own thoughts and priorities. The NUT has taught me that you mustn't be jerking around all over the place."

Janet Brown, chief executive of the SQA, said that the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, including new National qualifications, had been a partnership between all those involved in Scottish education.

"SQA engages with education professionals, parents, employers and learners in a number of ways, one of which is our website, which we continue to develop to improve its usability and effectiveness as a two-way communication tool," Dr Brown said. "SQA has and will continue to respond to feedback from teachers and lecturers, and has stressed repeatedly that its key priority is offering the support necessary to ensure the new qualifications are introduced successfully."

Ms Mechan, 55, was born in Glasgow and went to Notre Dame High School. Her father was a dentist and her mother a speech therapist, while her grandmother Mary McAlister was the first nurse elected to the UK Parliament, in 1958.

Ms Mechan became the first female president of the student union at Elmwood College in Fife while studying business in the 1970s. She joined The Observer's graduate training programme in London, subsequently pursuing a commercial career during which she launched magazines for Asda and Waitrose.

She returned north so that her daughter could be schooled in Scotland and worked for the Newsquest Herald and Times group. In 2002, she embarked on a new career by starting a part-time law degree.

Alan McKenzie, SSTA acting general secretary, said that Ms Mechan brought a range of experience that would benefit the union. "She has an ebullient personality and natural leadership qualities, which will enable her to take the association forward," he said. "I particularly like that she's got a good sense of humour but is also quite steely in her approach to negotiating."

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