Rory Mair

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
The chief executive of the council umbrella organisation Cosla reveals why he doesn't agree with teachers' lifelong salary protection and the debt he owes his children's primary school.

Can you tell us a little about your education?

When I went to school - the High School of Glasgow - it was moving from being a direct grant-aided school to its current independent status. I would just rather have been somewhere else, with my mates at the local school. My two brothers and I are all chief executives of a public service in Scotland, but none of us left school with entrance qualifications for university - although one brother went on to get a first and I and the other got 2:1s, so we were clearly capable of going.

Were your views on education influenced by your mother (founder of the Isobel Mair School for complex learning needs)?

My mum was a paediatrician and instrumental in setting up a screening system for young people who might have a variety of disabilities. Her belief in an integrated approach has influenced my philosophy, but that wasn't the biggest impact on my views. It was the support from the teachers and headteacher at my children's school, Avoch Primary, when my wife died in a car accident about 15 years ago. My boys were eight, 10 and 12 years old; I was working in Fife and coming home to the Black Isle at the weekends. They wanted to stay where they were and I felt it wasn't fair to move them after all that had happened. The school was a constant for us, it was reassuring.

Do you agree with critics that our current education system would be more effective if we had fewer than the current 32 local authorities, which range from very small to very large?

In educational terms, we do reasonably well in Europe with 80 per cent of young people - better than Sweden and France. But the other 20 per cent do massively worse. No one is suggesting that the money saved in moving from 32 councils to 25 or 20 or 15 would ever release the resources to address that issue - it's about local integration, not centralisation.

What do you think of the idea of area education boards, along the lines of police and fire boards?

There's a lot wrong with boards - lack of local accountability, mainly. I have no problem with area integration of service delivery, which we are already seeing and are going to see more of. Organising support systems such as psychological services over three or four councils and sharing staffing is what works best for the system, as far as I am concerned.

Do you think education has enjoyed a `place in the sun' for too long when it comes to local authority spending and priorities?

What is being challenged is a view that resources invested in teachers are resources invested in children. I don't think that is any longer being accepted as right by leaders. Some things have been invested in teachers, but we have seen no discernible further investment in the children these teachers are responsible for - it's stuck with the teachers. There are some big issues there.

Would you like to see teachers' pay and conditions negotiated on a council-by-council basis?

No, I still want to see it done centrally. Teachers have got to accept that there are some conditions of employment in place that have been negotiated in a variety of ways without exposing them to any kind of scrutiny - things like the lifetime protection of salary. In any other part of the local government workforce, if a reorganisation comes along and someone is moved to a lower salary, their salary is protected for three years. Why are teachers protected for an entire lifetime? It is also very difficult to understand why, if you retire from mainstream teaching as the head of English and you go back for one or two days' supply teaching, you would expect to be paid as the head of English. And why is it that if you are a teacher and you go on maternity leave in Scotland (but not England), at the end of it you will have accrued 66 days' holiday? Any other person will have accrued 28 days.

Do you take issue with any elements of the CoslaScottish Government pre- budget deal - for example, the setting of a target for the number of teachers in employment?

It is not that we don't want 51,131 teachers - it's just that if you look at it across the board, that sum is quite a major commitment. But, in theoretical terms, there is absolutely no evidence that a specific number of teachers or a specific number of pupils per class enhances the educational objectives we have.

What is your own vision for the future of local government, including education?

I would like to see more services under democratic accountability and I would like to see local government's position enhanced and constitutionally protected. I would like to see local government raising more of its resources locally - it's what happens in other European countries. Personally, I would like to see the council tax freeze removed.

If you had a magic wand, how would you reform public services?

I would magic away the view that structural reform of schools is the preferred answer and bring about a system that looked at the issues.


Born: Glasgow, 1957

Education: Netherlee Primary; High School of Glasgow; Langside College; Sunderland University (environmental science)

Career: At 28, Britain's youngest council chief executive when appointed to Ross and Cromarty District; strategic director for social strategy, Fife Council; director of Aviemore Projects, Highlands and Islands Enterprise; chief executive of Cosla since 2002.

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