Quality man comes in from the cold

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Tynecastle has seen an unusual transfer deal completed during the winter break in the football season. Mike Hay, headteacher of Tynecastle High school, has swapped the calm and serenity of his office for the turbulent waters of the directorate.

Mike had already emulated Lawrence Oates (Scott's Antarctic expedition companion) by declaring to his colleagues, as he went off on secondment to the city council 18 months ago, "I am going out now. I may be some time." He has now been appointed to a permanent post within the education department, involving liaison between schools and the education unit.

A sums teacher by trade, Mike succeeds Isobel Vass, another conscientious mathematician. It is suggested that the slogan of the department should become "Education counts".

The appointment of Mike constitutes an unequivocal statement by Roy Jobson, Edinburgh's director of education, that he means business in fashioning an authority which is more responsive to the needs of pupils and teachers in schools.

Education departments can become trapped into feeding a voracious dragon of centralist bureaucracy, responding to politicians, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, government departments and special interest groups, all of whom demand their immediate and total attention. Creating a centrifugal force in council offices and putting the emphasis on schools requires experience, audacity and determination.

My first encounter with Mike was inauspicious. He was depute head in Tynecastle, the head being Gordon Munro, sadly now deceased. My school and Tynie were sharing a residential event for pupils. On the day that I dragged one of their happy campers back to school for corrective pastoral counselling, Mike was acting head and ensconced in the headteacher's chair.

"Go on," I urged, "tell Mr Munro what you did."

"Ah will, ah will," replied the wretched malefactor, "but that's no Mr Munro."

The council's ambitious and somewhat risky survey of staff, headed "How good is our authority?", gave Mike a pivotal role in exposing the authority's strengths and weaknesses.

Questionnaires and surveys have a privileged position right at the bottom of the headteacher's in-tray. Often they do not see the light of day and shape themslves into a handy disposable lining for the wire-mesh receptacle. "How good is our authority?" looked particularly daunting as it squinted up accusingly from the corner of the desk.

It had, we were assured, been circulated to a sizeable sample of the council's troopers, giving it an advantage over the usual pap, which enlists our labour to prove what the researcher could have found out from anybody on a bus. The return sheet had one of these abhorrent grids which led half of the American electorate to vote for the wrong leader.

Until now, quality assurance in education was a one-way street. Schools seemed to be scrutinised about twice a week, but there had been few opportunities for us as consumers to comment on council services.

I filled in the boxes as required, trying to give due credit to the armies of council colleagues who serve schools quietly and faithfully and taking the opportunity for a few gripes about the trouble spots. This was no broad-brush sweep through functions and areas so wide-ranging as to be impersonal. Questions were targeted to very specific areas of responsibility and in some cases the focus on individuals and small sections of the department was uncomfortably sharp.

It was evident from the results, presented by Mike Hay some weeks later, that the authority was really prepared to bare its soul and bring some skeletons out of the cupboard. While many of the problems uncovered are institutional and, to a degree, intractable, the candour and openness of the exercise has earned the appreciation of the lieges.

Time will reveal the firmness of the council's resolve to get things fixed, but headteachers in particular are giving the authority the benefit of the doubt.

Mike, in a slightly different incarnation, has just completed a review of Holy Rood. This involves a team of quality services staff visiting classes, interviewing pupils and surveying parents. The process was thorough but sensitive and the approach unerringly constructive and positive.

Initial feedback suggests that we passed. It was particularly reassuring to know that the examiner, checking operations in the cockpit, had some experience of flying the plane.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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