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Wasted at the margins

The Scottish tradition of advisory support must not be abandoned if schools are to raise standards and end exclusion, says Brian Boyd

MY friend and erstwhile tutor, Malcolm McKenzie, once described advisers as "marginal people". He meant that they often had to work at the margins, a role which required great adaptability and resilience. The question is now, in the aftermath of a McCrone report that failed conspicuously to address their needs, have they become marginalised?

The more seasoned advisers would no doubt say that it was ever thus. My former colleagues in Strathclyde Region would, no doubt, point to successive restructurings, few of which took their views seriously and most of which were founded on the premise, espoused by senior members of the directorate, that traditional advisers were at best a luxury, at worst "a waste of space".

Quality assurance became the name of the game and compliance the key role for the new breed of "adspector". Armed with performance indicators, audits and success criteria, they were to go into schools and conduct reviews, annual or triennial, and in so doing contribute to the "quality agenda". With little training, and often with less enthusiasm, they nevertheless did their customary professional job. They were supportive and sensitive, engaged in a professional debate and wrote reports that were clear and unambiguous - qualities often lacking in HMI visits.

They found themselves fewer in number, expected to take on new roles but with little support from their bosses. Nevertheless, they survived the next major restructuring occasioned by local government reorganisation. At this point, what had been once a national service splintered unrecognisably, with a few councils opting for a traditional structure and a small number retaining the adspector role, but with most going for a hybrid which focused on in-service training and staff development along with a range of duties formerly carried out by education officers.

The new councils were determined to make their mark and that so many of them have been so successful is due in no small part to the role played by the advisory service, now often called something like the educational development service. Advisers continue to support schools, running or fixing in-service training. They liaise with universities and others to provide a range of accredited courses leading to certificates, diploma and masters degrees. They have promoted the Scottish Qualification for Headship in their councils and they will, no doubt, do the same for chartered teachers. And, at the same time, they carry out a whole host of duties for the directorate, from writing papers for education committees to chairing working groups.

So, why decide that McCrone would have nothing to say about their pay or conditions of service? We need them to be valued for the work they do and we need them to be paid fairly. If, as HMI said recently, it really wants schools to be freed from the tyranny of curriculum content and to become creative, innovative and flexible, then we need an advisory service which can broker such initiatives.

We should at this point in our history be at the cusp of a new dynamism in schools. Teachers should be supported to become confident, reflective professionals, trusted to be innovative and to do the best for their pupils. We should resolve now to hang on to our Scottish tradition of advisory support and move quickly to recognise the contribution they can make to raising achievement and tackling social exclusion.

Brian Boyd is associate director at Strathclyde University and a former chief adviser in Strathclyde Region.

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