Wise hand for the fledgling opt-outs

18th October 1996 at 01:00
The inevitable "poacher-turned-gamekeeper" portrayal of Ian Dutton's appointment as chief civil servant for opted-out schools is almost an understatement. Mr Dutton would normally be pleased, for he is fond of understatement.

The cordial and thoughtful former director of education in Borders Region is bigger game than most, and the Education Minister must be smacking his lips even if Mr Dutton is not letting much pass his.

Not only was he a senior local authority figure, as treasurer of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland he was at the very heart of many battles against Government policy, including the legislation on opting out.

Has he received any congratulatory messages from former colleagues? "Not yet, but I have been out all day," he told The TES Scotland last Friday.

There are, alas for the cruel press, no publicly quotable skeletons from Mr Dutton's past denouncing the evils of opting out. When he arrived in the Borders in 1990, he did express some pride that no school had sought to opt out in Northumberland where he had previously been deputy director for 18 months. This was no doubt due to the caring nature of the education service, he added.

The minister believes that Mr Dutton would bring a deep understanding of school education and management to the task. But Mr Dutton is anxious to make one thing clear about the post, which he takes up immediately: he does not intend to act as a missionary extolling the virtues of opting out.

"I see the job as a continuation of what I have always done, which is explaining what the policies are and leaving it to others to make their own judgments. I am not an advocate and will be subject to the same restrictions as civil servants whose role is to implement policy not question it."

This acquisition of neutrality is just as well, since opting out in Scotland does not look like having a long shelf-life. Mr Dutton's job could be one of the shorter public appointments by the Scottish Office and Labour lost no time in pledging to axe it.

Mr Dutton has at least been spared the embarrassment of a completely blank sheet since there are Dornoch Academy and St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane to look after. "I will be there to help them," he explained. "In the normal course of events, they would have turned to their education authority and I will have an analogous function."

Otherwise Mr Dutton does not intend to make a nuisance of himself. "I expect groups of parents and school boards will want me to talk to them, but I won't be imposing myself on anybody. The initiative still lies with parents and boards." His first task would be to look at all the public information on the subject and decide whether some of it needs to be recast to make it more "user-friendly and digestible".

The amount of activity parents initiate is not an academic matter for Mr Dutton, aged 55: it will determine his earnings. He would not be drawn on the reported "up to Pounds 45,000" salary tag for the post which he will be doing on a part-time consultancy basis.

"I have seen the speculation about the return I am likely to receive," he said in one of his bouts of masterly ambiguity. "The activity in relation to opting out would have to be considerable to generate the amounts being spoken of and, if it is, I shall be surprised."

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