In the shadow of the director

4th May 2001 at 01:00
Ever wondered what a director of education actually does and how he spends his day? Douglas Blane went to West Dunbartonshire to follow Ian McMurdo and find out what a typical day in the life of the man at the top is like

West Dunbartonshire's director of education, Ian McMurdo, has a long working week. He leaves for work at 7.15am, does not get back until 9pm and he takes correspondence home with him and deals with it before he reaches his office the next day. Lunch breaks are a luxury most working days do not afford and Sundays are spent clearing any items from the previous week and planning the next.

Mr McMurdo is a big man with a deep, resonant voice which he had to learn to use with care at the start of his career, as a chemistry teacher. "You're shaping up to be a good teacher," he was told, "but you're frightening the weans."

Almost 30 years later, at a meeting of West Dunbartonshire's Education Executive, the confidence conveyed by his voice is a distinct asset. But if he is frightening the elected members of the council opposition, they are hiding it well.

"Did I hear you say," enquires one, "that you did not want this question of reducing the absence cover budgets to go to consultation in schools because they would object too vociferously?" "No," replies Mr McMurdo firmly. "You did not.

"What I said was that there has been consultation over a period and I am sure most headteachers understand there is over-provision in the budget and that, in terms of best value and effective management, this is something we should do.

"But though it will not affect their capacity to provide absence cover, it is going to reduce their ability to vire from an over-provided budget. And that makes me think few headteachers would welcome it."

Taking such decisions, in the long-term interest of the authority but not necessarily attractive to school management, is what directors of education are employed to do. It does not necessarily enhance their popularity, which is probably the reason that his personal assistant, Deirdre McGowan, when asked what personal qualities a director needs, answers: "Broad shoulders." She also says that Mr McMurdo has an outstanding memory - "quite scary sometimes" - and that he prepares very thoroughly for meetings.

"One of my faults," he admits, "is that I can get impatient with people who aren't as well organised as I try to be."

Another item on the agenda is less contentious: a proposal that 100 fixed-term temporary posts, mainly for teachers and classroom assistants, should be made permanent. Even though the opposition supports the proposal, the councillors take the opportunity to criticise the background report for being insufficiently detailed.

When asked later if they always give him a hard time, Mr McMurdo says yes but acknowledges that it is their job. "They often come up at the end of a meeting and say it's nothing personal: it's just politics."

He makes dozens of decisions in a typical day, he says, then pointing out that there is really no such thing. "The most predictable aspect of a director's daily activities is the unpredictability."

Experience is an asset and Mr McMurdo's career has been suitably varied. He began as a chemistry teacher in 1972, moving schools to become a principal teacher, then assistant head. He left teaching in 1988 for a job as professional assistant to the chairman of the education committee of Strathclyde regional council.

"The job appealed not because I had any burning ambition to go higher and higher, but because things were really on the move in education and I fancied getting involved in formulating policies.

"I was immediately thrown in at the deep end, working with the senior politicians."

He remained in that post for two years before becoming an education officer, "managing building stock, budgets and resources going into schools". In 1995 when directors of education were being sought for the 32 new unitary authorities, he applied for the post in West Dunbartonshire.

"When I got it, my first reaction was to crack open a bottle; but the next morning I thought: 'What a learning curve this is going to be!' "Nowadays I've got a very experienced directorate team, but they weren't then and nor were the councillors. It was an exciting time but daunting. All we had at first was a blank sheet of paper and a transfer list from Strathclyde. It was very demanding and I put an awful lot into it, to the detriment, perhaps, of my family, who didn't see very much of me."

It was a difficult time too for West Dunbartonshire, he says, partly because the method of allocating money to local councils does not favour areas of deprivation. Yet the council decided to continue to support services for the vulnerable - free school meals, bursaries, community education and so on - which meant that the first few years were characterised by "having to make fairly swingeing cuts".

The past three years, Mr McMurdo says, have seen a big difference, with much greater government investment in education.

"The financial situation has improved but more still needs to be done because areas like ours that suffer the greatest degree of socio-economic deprivation are still not getting enough money from the pot."

At the Executive meeting which follows the Education Executive meeting, the first item on the agenda is a presentation by one of the director's staff on the New Community Authority initiative.

"We're the only council in Scotland that has taken forward community schools on a whole authority basis," Mr McMurdo explains.

The meeting goes on to consider snow-clearing and bridge repairs, but Mr McMurdo stays only as long as an item on libraries and museums is discussed: cultural services are also part of his remit.

The meetings, not unexpectedly, have lasted longer than planned and there is just time for a hasty review with senior colleagues over a sandwich before setting off to visit a school. Mr McMurdo has visited 23 primary schools this session. Today it is the turn of St Michael's Primary in Dumbarton, which was built two years ago and still looks in immaculate condition, "although they no longer tell me to take my shoes off at the door!" he says.

He meets with the headteacher, Sister Elizabeth Brady, who chairs a working group exploring social inclusion, raising attainment and the acknowledged tensions between the two.

This is followed by a guided tour of every class. The topic of snow - aired in the council meeting - comes up again, but the children are less critical and more musical than the councillors. "I hope it snows all night and it snows all day," they sing with gusto. "And we'll run outside and we'll shout 'Hooray!' " Mr McMurdo looks as if he might like to join in the chorus but his unfamiliarity with the words, rather than the dignity of his office, deters him.

One aspect of teaching that he misses is the children, he says, so he finds school visits rewarding. That is not their main purpose, however. It is, rather, to encourage feedback from the teachers, so after the school tour he gathers with the staff over coffee.

"More money is now coming into schools," he says, "and I want to know which initiatives are helping you to raise standards and what we can do to provide you with better support in the classroom."

The ensuing discussion is wide-ranging, covering the benefits of early intervention to reading and writing, computer teething troubles and supported study and sports initiatives. The teachers are left with a hand-out of questions such as "What further action could the authority take to support you?", to be answered later and passed on to the director.

Back at the office, Mr McMurdo has a meeting with the chief executive, makes several telephone calls and discusses with senior colleagues the preparations for an impending visit by HM inspectors.

At a personal level, Mr McMurdo admits that he is less comfortable with some aspects of the job, such as "mingling and exchanging pleasantries at conferences and functions". He mentions his wife and family again and the fact that although they have benefited materially this has come at a price. "Weeks can go by during which we might see each other for only a few waking hours," he regrets.

However, he particularly enjoys the cut and thrust of life as a director of education, "the range of issues and the crises that must be dealt with, balanced against the pro-active planning and the development of services". He enjoys committee work and the challenge of generating commitment and motivation, "turning a dream into reality to benefit our youngsters".

He says: "I particularly enjoy visiting schools and invariably return to the office much encouraged that a lot of excellent work is taking place. I'm proud of the staff in our establishments and I think the West Dunbartonshire children generally receive a very good education, which is essential given the huge challenges many of them face, coming from disadvantaged backgrounds."

When his contract ends in 2005, his main ambition is to leave behind an effective, well-organised department that will continue to provide better opportunities for the young people of West Dunbartonshire, he says.

"I come from a very similar background to theirs," he concludes, "and I know the kind of problems they have to face. So if ever I start feeling that life is tough, I just remind myself how privileged I really am."


* To provide the interface between the education department and elected council members;

* to provide visible and high-profile leadership to all staff in the education service;

* to provide vision and clarity of purpose to users of the service and to mobilise that vision;

* to develop and review policies and practices on a regular basis;

* to carry out a systematic self-evaluation of the authority's services, make this process transparent and to encourage total ownership of all stakeholders with a view to continuous service improvement;

* to provide sound and clear advice to elected council members;

* to ensure that the education department's management and planning of resources and budgets is tight, imaginative and relates closely to key policy direction;

* to ensure that schools and all other establishments continuously evaluate themselves and that the authority provides rigorous external evaluation with a view to continuously raising attainment;

* to drive forward the council's approach to developing all the schools on a New Community Authority approach;

* to maintain and raise morale at all levels and in all work locations, by means of school visits, talking to staff and elected council members and generally "walking the job";

* to lead from the front in implementing the McCrone agreement.

9am Administration and discussions.

9.30 Pre-Education Executive meeting with heads of service.

Prior to committee meetings we go over the issues that may be raised and rehearse which items should be introduced by which officers.

10.00 Education Executive meeting, followed by Executive meeting.

Education items are discussed at the former, while more corporate items are taken by the main Executive. I expect a considerable degree of discussion on a number of items.

11.30 Post-Executive meeting with the director and heads of service.

This is to give the team an opportunity to take stock of the decisions taken at the meetings and the actions now required.

12.00 Director's post and administration work with my personal assistant, Deirdre McGowan, and secretary, Fiona Archer.

This is my daily meeting with my PA and secretary to deal with aspects of administration that can be actioned by them.

12.30 Lunch

1.00 Pre school visit meeting with Deirdre to discuss background issues, information, statistics and other relevant factors I should be aware of prior to a school visit.

1.15 Visit to St Michael's Primary school in Dumbarton.

This is one of a series of formal school visits - I have visited 23 primary schools this session - to meet staff and pupils and explore their views.

3.00 Meeting with the chief executive.

This is a private meeting to go over a number of confidential matters.

3.30 Update meeting with senior education colleagues regarding best value review to monitor the progress of a number of reviews that are taking place.

4.00 Quality Management in Education update meeting.

The department is conducting an extensive staff evaluation exercise and developing a "How Good is our Education Authority?" consultation. This meeting is to provide me with an update on progress.

4.45-5.30 General office administration.

Continuation of my noon meeting with Deirdre and Fiona, after which I will let them go home - usually - but I remain in the office until 7.30pm.

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