Qualified for school and FE tightrope

13th December 1996 at 00:00
Neil Munro profiles Ron Tuck, the chief inspector who has been named head of the Scottish Qualifications Authority

A man so steeped in the fields of government, further education and qualifications as Ron Tuck is not entirely a surprising appointment to lead the Scottish Qualifications Authority, arguably the most important post to be filled recently in Scottish education.

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State, gave Mr Tuck a ringing endorsement as someone who would bring "energy, enthusiasm and expertise" to the organisation that replaces the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council from next April.

David Miller, the SQA chairman who helped to pick his right-hand man, was no less sparing of Mr Tuck's blushes. "He has a fantastically clear mind, is quick on his feet, and has good organisational ability and wide experience, particularly of further education," Mr Miller said.

Mr Tuck, the chief inspector with responsibility for the 14-18 curriculum, has almost written his own job description. As the person credited with fashioning a new curriculum and assessment framework out of the confusion that followed the Howie committee's report and then driving forward the Higher Still programme to which that process gave birth, Mr Tuck seems the perfect midwife for the post, which carries a salary of up to Pounds 75,000.

The candidate of "outstanding calibre" advertised by the Scottish Office certainly has the requisite CV experience of strategic planning, financial management and the implementation of change, knowledge of Scottish education, and "successful senior management experience within a substantial organisation".

Mr Tuck has not, of course, had the experience of presiding over an organisation with a turnover of Pounds 25m a year, employing 860 permanent and temporary staff on two sites in Dalkeith and Glasgow, which are 50 miles apart - "an awesome job," as Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, described it this week.

The SQA will be responsible for all post-16, sub-degree qualifications and for the testing "lower still", that is part of the 5-14 programme. Mr Tuck must produce not only a unified academic and vocational framework, but also a unified culture out of the SEB and Scotvec - a task that may prove more difficult.

Mr Tuck's experience, however, has been entirely in further and vocational education. His first exposure to schools was not until he became adviser to the Howie committee during 1990-92. He joined the staff of Angus College in 1974, three years after taking a politics degree from Edinburgh University, and stayed there until recruited by Her Majesty's Inspectorate in 1985.

Some teaching union figures, while praising Mr Tuck's competence, will suspend judgment while he treads the tightrope between school and FE interests. "He may veer towards the Scotvec way of doing things," said one.

A Dundee United supporter is probably used to walking tightropes. But he will have to rely on more than being the "hell of a nice guy", which is invariably the way he is portrayed.

Douglas Law, the depute principal at Fife College and a fellow liberal studies man to trade, believes that Mr Tuck's wide background in FE will help him to be accommodating. "I'm quite sure he will put the educational interests of students at the very top of his priority list, irrespective of which sector they come from," he added.

Mr Tuck has certainly won golden opinions for his handling of the Higher Still programme. Even as curmudgeonly an observer of HMI as Fred Forrester, deputy general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, paid him a fulsome public tribute this week for the "efficiency" of the development.

And Judith Gillespie, former parents' leader who has served on the Higher Still national strategy group, praises him as "very amenable, restrained, jovial, showing no inclination to go off the deep end - although he must have felt like it on occasion - and with a willingness to absorb criticism".

What makes Mr Tuck tick is the developmental side of education. "I was lucky in the inspectorate because my remit has always associated me with developmental activity," he says. "If I had been mainly on a diet of inspection, I don't think I'd have found it so professionally rewarding. "

The Howie experience put his creative powers to the test. He now publicly admits that he had the same reservations as most others about the committee's "twin-track" approach to academic and vocational courses. His particular contribution was to make progressive links between the two via the famous "bridges and ladders".

Typically, however, Mr Tuck prefers not to personalise his role in this way. "Major planks of policy inevitably represent the efforts of a lot of different people, and individualising things downplays the important contribution that others make," he said.

He is, however, perfectly happy to take responsibility for Higher Still - not the least of his pleasures being that the basic structure has survived intact.

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