Time to pay tribute to a man who grasped what made teachers and their schools tick

1st June 2012 at 01:00
There is much to be learned from Fraser Henderson, the champion of comprehensives

We have all known educationalists who inspired and motivated us. For me one of these was Fraser Henderson, Lothian Region's former depute director of education. Fraser Henderson died on 1 May.

Fraser was a light-touch manager. In the 1990s, I was managing a support base for pupils facing possible school exclusion. It was hard, challenging work. Although there was a manager to whom I reported daily, Fraser was my official line manager. I saw him occasionally at meetings. He visited our centre - but rarely. There were never detailed discussions of progress, but on one occasion I had to visit HQ. I made a point of seeing him and, insecure perhaps in a vulnerable and peripheral sector of the service, I asked him his view of the quality of our work.

"You're doing very well," he said. "I know that. I speak to your local heads and other officials who work with you."

I wasn't satisfied. "But how do I know that we are doing a good job?"

"Because," he said, a twinkle in his eye, "you'd have been summoned here long time ago if you weren't." It's far from the detailed micro-managing which characterises schools and education today. It took self-confidence and a genuine sense of having fingers on the pulse of the system.

There was a clear moral purpose to Fraser's work. He was a champion of comprehensives, especially those serving the poorest areas of Lothian region. He encouraged, directed even, the best staff to teach in the most challenging schools. He argued these schools' cases within the system. He advised and supported them in their pursuit of resources.

He also understood the importance of such schools to their communities. He was a proponent of the community schools idea which, when originally developed by Lothian region, was committed to redistributing resources to the poorest communities to develop opportunities for young people and adults to learn together and enhance their social capital.

Fraser Henderson was also a talent spotter. He identified bright, talented teachers and provided them with career advice and counselling which was a million miles for the formalised professional review and development hoops through which staff and managers are forced to jump today. It was enormously more effective.

The day may come again when schools operate within education departments rather than mega-departments led by generic managers and when education departments are led by educationalists who understand the weft and weave of schools and know by experience what makes them tick. In the meantime I offer this as my tribute to one who was a model of such practice.

Alex Wood, Former headteacher, works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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