Trouble ahead for the north-east?

23rd July 2004 at 01:00
I will shortly be leaving Strathclyde University to take up a new academic post. Transitions are both exciting and daunting, and provide an opportunity to reflect on achievements, disappointments and plans for the future. I have been very happy at Strathclyde and have enjoyed tremendous support from my colleagues. At my going away do, I was treated to an agreeable mixture of compliments and cheek, to which I hope I responded with appreciation and humour.

One of the things that has given me greatest satisfaction has been the appointment of new staff who bring varied experience and fresh thinking to the field of teacher education. Making the right decisions about staff recruitment and deployment is vital to any organisation. There needs to be a balance between continuity and stability on the one hand, and innovation and development on the other.

Too much of the former can lead to a static mind-set, resistant to new ideas. Too much of the latter can be unsettling and lead to a loss of focus.

A very practical achievement that has pleased me is the complete refurbishment of the departmental office, providing a much more comfortable and attractive environment for support staff, as well as a more welcoming first point of contact for students and visitors. This project has taken three years from the initial bid for funding, through the planning and approval stages, to completion of the work.

As with nearly all such projects, there have been delays and frustrations but, with co-operation and goodwill, the desired result has been achieved.

On the basis of this experience, I now consider myself qualified to give advice to those who carry responsibility for the final stages of the Scottish Parliament building.

Research is another area where some progress has been made. I have been happy to be associated with the applied educational research scheme, which is intended to build research capacity across Scotland and inform policy and practice (details at www.aers.ed.ac.uk). The hard work in securing this contract (in collaboration with Edinburgh and Stirling universities) was done by colleagues and I wish them success in their continuing efforts.

Expanding my own research output will be a priority in my new post.

The student population represents the lifeblood of any university and I have had the privilege of teaching many interesting students from a wide variety of backgrounds. I often think that, when the demands of bureaucracy become too oppressive, it is the students who help to keep me sane (or as near sane as I can manage).

My postgraduate secondary students last session were a particular delight to teach - engaged with the issues, critical and questioning, sparky and humorous. I hope they manage to retain these qualities and are not ground down by the system.

This relates to the area where I would have liked to make more of a difference. Scottish education is good at setting up systems and structures, establishing policies and procedures. It is much less good at freeing people and giving them space to try out new approaches. Even worse, the reward system - in the shape of promotion and professional advancement - often penalises people who are prepared to take risks.

This leads to a deeply conservative culture in education - ironically often sustained by people whose self-image is one of enlightened progressivism.

Universities are not short of staff who are happy to recommend radical reform for others but adopt a defensive and self-interested stance when faced with change themselves. If I am looking for another challenge, there is no shortage of work to do.

In August, Walter Humes will become professor of education at Aberdeen University, with responsibility for research development.

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