Why the future is bright for mandarins

THE prospect of a senior civil servant from the Scottish Executive Education Department hanging upside down on a mountain is strangely attractive. This pleasing image came to me on a visit to the Scottish Executive website where I learned that Mike Ewart, the new head of the SEED, lists ice and rock climbing among his leisure interests. I was prompted to seek other personal snippets.

John Elvidge, Ewart's predecessor and now head of finance, admits to a fondness for food and wine, one shared with our most senior civil servant, Sir Muir Russell.

However, this piece of information about Sir Muir was not gleaned from the same source: it is included in his entry in Who's Who in Scotland. Sir Muir has been in the headlines because of his controversial appointment as the next principal of Glasgow University with effect from October next year. His gourmet tendency should prepare him for all those dull academic dinners, but I do hope the culinary transition from the Edinburgh's New Club to Gilmorehill is not too distressing. The very idea of a dyspeptic principal would, I am sure, cause dismay to staff and students alike.

These brief insights into the private lives of the mandarin class stop well short of presenting its members as warm and cuddly - there are limits to what is credible. But there are other, more significant, indications that the traditional impersonality and remoteness of public officials is under pressure.

Civil servants are now more visible. They can be summoned to give evidence to the two education committees of the Scottish Parliament. They are also expected to provide more information than before about consultation processes and policy decisions. A vast amount of data is available on the Executive and Parliament websites, though it is often hard to find exactly what you need. An excess of information that is difficult to negotiate is almost as bad as systematic concealment. There is a need to review official publication policies, in relation to both web-based and hard-copy material.

Incidentally, it is not only civil servants who can be invited to appear before parliamentary committees. I recently discovered that my own name was on a list of possible witnesses to the ongoing inquiry into the future of Scottish education. However, no invitation arrived. Just as well. It would have presented me with a serious ethical dilemma: my resolve not to keep bad company would have been put to a severe test.

There is one important respect in which Mike Ewart deserves congratulation. Shortly after his appointment as head of the SEED, he issued an extremely useful document giving details of the structure of the department and the names and responsibilities of senior staff. Telephone numbers and email addresses are also included. I wonder how many teachers are aware of the people who determine many aspects of their professional lives.

In addition to the Schools and Teachers divisions, there are divisions for New Educational Developments; Qualifications, Assessment and Curriculum; Pupil Support and Inclusion; Early Education and Childcare; Young People and Looked-after Children, and Information, Analysis and Communication. I particularly like the acronyms for the first two - NED and QuAC - which I will attempt to weave into my lectures in the new academic session.

The Civil Service once tried to separate the personal and the professional, in line with traditional bureaucratic thinking. The anonymity which this allowed often masked self-interest. Testing the boundaries of the personal and the professional may enhance understanding of the relationship between social identity, knowledge and power.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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