COLIN MACLEAN must be one of the few mandarins, if not the only one, whose career spans schools, local authorities, the inspectorate, quangos and the civil service.
The 55-year-old, who began his working life as a maths teacher in Edinburgh in 1973, has now reached the very top, albeit in an acting capacity, as head of the Scottish Executive Education Department, having taken over from Mike Ewart in January.
On the way, Mr MacLean's maths skills were put to use overseeing the introduction of IT into Lothian Region schools and becoming chief statistician both in the then Scottish Office Education Department and, later, for the Scottish Office as a whole. He had two spells in the inspectorate, rising to the number two position.
But it was his job as depute head of the schools grou`p in SEED, that saw him thrust into the centre of one of the biggest crises to hit Scottish education and, in the process, establish his reputation as a safe pair of hands - the 2000 exams implosion.
Mr MacLean's responsibilities at the time included qualifications, assessment, new educational developments (Higher Still) and ICT in education - all the elements that were central to the crisis. Indeed, he was in a unique position to see it unfold and, as he recalls: "We realised in the summer of 2000 that the Scottish Quali-fications Authority had data problems, but by then there wasn't time to do anything about it."
His IT background and departmental responsibilities, combined with a methodical, imperturbable persona, made him well suited to become "exams czar", working with the SQA to ensure the problems did not recur in 2001.
Mr MacLean speaks of his "relief" on arriving at the SQA to find that, as an organisation, it was actually working. "We didn't have to find another organisation to deliver the 2001 exams," he said. He soon realised, however, that the main challenge lay in establishing the inter-dependence of schools, education authorities and the SQA, particularly in terms of the information passing between them.
Mr MacLean certainly has the knack of being in the right place at the right time - in the inspectorate as the self-evaluation tool How Good Is Our School? was being developed and, most recently, as head of the executive's children, young people and social care group when child protection and inter-agency problems threw the spotlight on his department.
The challenge for the executive, however, is to make sure its own work is joined up - the recent Taking Stock review suggested it still had some way to go. One of the key objectives, Mr MacLean says, is to ensure the education department is sending out the same messages on children and young people as its counterparts in health, justice, the police and social work.
But joined-up thinking and working means particular challenges for the vast range of activities in Mr MacLean's own department. The schools group's natural links are with the lifelong learning department, the childcare team will deal most often with health and justice, the sports group will talk to health, the tourism people will look to heritage and culture. The task is to ensure they communicate with each other internally.
Although Mr MacLean acknow-ledges there will always be tensions between the "higher order" policy priorities and what can be delivered, he says this is not a source of frustration. "I would describe what we try to do as being about empowering people to make things work, making sure the right people are talking to each other about the right things, and making connections to ensure the outcomes we want are delivered. I believe we're getting better at doing that."
Mr MacLean will continue to head SEED until after the election. The pre-election "purdah" means nothing dramatic is expected to emerge on his watch - and that probably suits his persona very well.