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Time to recognise the third sector

In the second of our interviews with professionals who have close links to education, Ewan Aitkin talks to Martin Sime.

Although most of us would see our schooldays as having shaped some of our thinking about education, Martin Sime's educational journey has clearly had a profound effect on how he views school life.

The chief executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations since 1991, he went to Edinburgh's Tollcross Primary, which served what he called a "thriving inner-city community". There was discipline and a focus on the essentials: every Friday afternoon there was something different, like a film.

He went on to win one of 10 scholarships provided by the then Edinburgh Corporation to go to George Heriot's, one of the city's elite private schools. That there ever were scholarships was news to me, and Martin Sime did not suggest that we should revive them.

The transition from urban mixed community primary school to an all-male institution without a close geographical community was very difficult, he recalls. Most of his classmates had money behind them. Most of his pals from Tollcross shunned him, so he lost his original community and found it hard to integrate.

He survived but left after fifth year, disillusioned with what he felt was little more than an "exam factory". For Mr Sime, schools need to give young people the skills to succeed rather than simply the ability to regurgitate knowledge. These are skills such as communication - written and spoken - but also a deeper sense of citizenship and belonging.

He sees a real role for voluntary organisations (or the third sector, as he likes to call it) in helping schools to achieve these things, but recognises that there are huge barriers on both sides to achieving them.

Schools are huge institutions that are hard to break into primarily because, according to him, "they find it difficult to apply pluralism, they struggle to offer things in a diverse way". On the other hand, voluntary organisations don't pass on good models for others to use, he says, and they are at times almost ideologically resistant to rolling out good practice: "If it works, that's enough - keep it local" is often the thinking.

His view is that the third sector does not have a mechanism or even the ambition (with a few notable exceptions) to expand a successful model into a method with which schools could engage.

Of course, a lot is due to funding for schools and for voluntary organisations. The solution, he believes, is a form of "double devolution" whereby education authorities empower schools to think laterally but fund them accordingly.

Mr Sime argues that he and his colleagues can offer some real solutions to schools, especially for disadvantaged and disaffected pupils. But they need to be treated as part of the education cake, not the icing when there is some extra cash. The trouble is, education authorities will always, perhaps understandably, find their own staff first and then look to see what other providers can bring to the table.

He compliments John Swinney, the Finance Secretary, as a politician who understands what the third sector can offer, citing a visit he made to a Galashiels project which was effecting transformational change in some very troubled 14 to 19-year-olds. It was off-site but clearly linked to the school, which used it as a way of dealing with these young people.

Mr Sime says the four staff in a tiny office were stepping in to attempt solutions which the school could not do, but the school had recognised that and created the relationship. The trouble was that they had to use four separate streams of funding, the longest of which runs out next month.

Mr Sime argues that "authority doesn't change the world: people do - and young people experience that at school". They need to learn how to communicate, understand how the world works and have a collective sense of responsibility as citizens.

The third sector can help to make that happen, but it takes schools to recognise their own limitations in the first instance, be given the freedom to try other models and offered the resources to sustain the relationships with the third sector so they can play their part.


1953: Born Edinburgh

1972-76: St Andrew's University (first class honours, modern history)

1976-78: Economic and social history researcher

1978-82: Sheep farmer in Lewis

1983-85: Manager, Sprout Market Garden employment project for people who had experienced mental illness

1985-88: Development managerprincipal officer with Scottish Association for Mental Health

1988-91: Director, SAMH

1991 to date: Director and chief executive, SCVO; Board member of CIVICUS, a global network of national non-governmental organisations.

Photograph: Morag Livingstone.

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