Developing my role

As Head of Education I had a very clear and unambiguous role, i.e.  I was responsible for everything which came under the banner of education of children and young people from 3-18 years of age.  In my new role as Acting Director of Education and Children’s Services I have a much wider remit which includes the oversight of education but also gives me responsibility for the social care agenda for children and families in East Lothian.  I’m fortunate to have two outstanding heads of service in the form of Alan Ross, Head of Children’s Services, and Maureen Jobson, Acting Head of Education, both of whom have tremendous experience in their respective fields and can be relied upon to deal with the business of managing our £85 million budget whilst also contributing and shaping our strategic direction.

As Director I also have a major corporate responsibility as a member of the Board of Directors, alongside the other directors and the chief executive.  It’s this area that has perhaps the greatest potential for seeing a change in the way that we do things in East Lothian.  For example, we have agreed following our recent Managers Conference to revise our corporate plan to consider things in a much more thematic approach than simply from a service perspective.  For example, by considering the corporate parenting agenda as a theme we can begin consider how each of the discrete services can work together more effectively to provide a service which has a positive impact on the lives of Looked After and Accommodated Children – as opposed to one where the needs of the individual service took precedence over the needs of the child.

As a Director I also play a key role in the interface with the elected administration through working closely with the convener pf education and children’s services and other senior members of the administration in assisting them to fulfil their democratically elected agenda. The range and number of meetings can be a burden in terms of the time required but this is a necessary outcome of democratic accountability if we are to ensure that local government is properly managed and effectively delivered.

I’m also heavily involved in developing our strategy and practice in relation to the integration of various services to ensure that we work together effectively to meet the needs of young people and families.  As the chair of the Chief Officers group which includes senior representatives from education, police, health, the voluntary sector, children’s services and elected members we have begun to see a more connected approach to planning and the use of limited resources.  One of the exciting dimensions of this approach is our emerging strategic emphasis on Early Year and Parenting.  I have used this concept as a prism through which to reflect upon all aspects of our practice – that is not to say that everything that we do can be explicitly connected to early years or parenting – but that it’s a useful process through which we can begin to align resources and our practice to make substantive , long-term impact on the lives of children who otherwise would be trapped by the generational cycle of disengagement and poor outcomes which can afflict so many families.

In addition to these long term agendas there are of course the wide range of day-to-day issues which can land on my desk as the person with whom the “buck stops” – in many ways these are the bread and butter of my job but there does remain a danger that they can draw you into that cycle of “fixing things” – a phenomenon I recently wrote about – as opposed to considering the underlying issues which often underpin the day-to-day problems. This does require a disciplined approach if I am not to get lost in the detail and keep myself focused upon the bigger picture – which doesn’t always happen.  To that extent I think the role of this Learning Log is absolutely crucial as it’s the one of the few times in my working week when I have the freedom to explore ideas, reflect upon my work and consider the “opposite worlds” which might provide a more fruitful outcome than our current practice which can so dominate our lives.

Looking forwards I reckon I also have key role to sustain and support my colleagues who are dealing with issues at a face-to-face level with our customers – our senior leaders in schools and children’s services face innumerable challenges and do so in such positive and professional manner which explains why our respective services are of such a high standard. Nevertheless, such challenges inevitably take their toll which is why it is my intention in the coming year to work with my colleagues at a much closer personal level by regularly visiting them on site, attempting to understand their problems and offering my support both in a practical sense and in a longer-term strategic manner to change the way in which we do things.

Aussie Rules!!


Our son – Doug – is currently out in Australia playing rugby and generally having a tremendous time (I’m not really envious!). In the past week he’s been staying with Mark Walker’s  family in Melbourne.

I met Mark out in Harvard last summer and we struck up a great rapport.  He’s doing some very innovative work at Elsterwick Primary School where he is living out his professional life a reflective professional dedicated to improving the quality of learning and teaching in his school – whilst still retaining his innate sense of fun.

I enjoy reading Mark’s blog and realising that the challenges we face in Scotland are not as unique as we might think. I can’t really thank Mark and his family enough for showing such exceptional hospitality to our son.   

Perhaps Doug summed it up in one of his texts home when he said “They are great people”.

Community-Based School Management

Over the last few weeks I’ve been continuing to exploring the concept of school based management.

Some authorities in Scotland have implemented the concept of Learning Communities based around the secondary school  and the local primary schools, Glasgow runs New Learning Communities, Falkirk has Integrated learning communities and South Lanarkshire has Learning Communities.

Each of these schemes has very positive features, most notably in relation to the integration of other services to support vulnerable children and to co-ordinate developments across local schools.

However, there would appear to be scope to develop these schemes by exploring further devolution of budgetary control and employment of staff within the community of schools.

I haven’t been able to find many international examples of such a development aside from on in Madagascar which might suggest that such a idea is not that practical but in the interests promoting a dialectic of possible worlds I thought I might take the Learning Community concept and extend it to community-based management of schools.

Would it be possible for a local authority to establish a concordat with a group of local primary schools and their associated secondary school and devolve all budgets to a Learning Community Board of Management? 

A Head Teacher from the schools would take on the position of Chief Operating Officer.  The Board of Management would have representatives from the parents, staff, local community, elected members, health service, police, community learning and social services.

The biggest problem I see with this idea is the fear from some schools that they get subsumed within a larger community and lose their identity.  Yet the potential for every member of staff being employed by the Learning Community and the possibility of using the collective resources in much more coherent manner than at present might allow real progresss to made on promoting education as a true progression from 3-18 and the associated ownership of the school and the wider educational agenda by the local community.

A Cultural Rucksack?

This morning I met with colleagues from our Cultural Services Department to discuss how we might promote the East Lothian Council’s commitment to:

“Embed Scottish history, culture and heritage throughout school life and make every effort to support Scotland’s languages – both Gaelic and Scots.”

The associated outcome that schools have to work towards is:

“All children and young people will be able to demonstrate an appropriate knowledge of Scottish culture, history and heritage at key stages in their school careers.”

Obviously such an outcome still triggers further questions about what might constitute “appropriate knowledge” and what do we mean by “key stages” but over the next year we will be fleshing this out with the help of staff in schools.

Nevertheless, it does provide a stimulus for schools to begin to try to explore these areas for themselves.

Our discussion this morning focused upon the huge amount of work already going on in schools, which would link, to Scottish culture, history and heritage. The challenge for us is to find a way of tying this together into a coherent set of experiences that will fulfil our desire to give children a robust knowledge of their cultural heritage – without adding yet another layer of the curriculum to schools at a time when we are trying to declutter.

It was during this discussion that I recalled something that one of our quality Improvement Officers had brought back from a study visit to Oslo last year. On her return Valerie Irving had described a wide range of interesting elements of what’s going on in Norwegian education but the item which caught everyone’s imagination was the concept of the “Cultural Rucksack”. This metaphorical construct is used to ensure that children are acquainted with Norwegian Art and Culture and as they go through the education system they collect these experiences and place them in their rucksack.

We wondered this morning of we could establish a Scottish Cultural, History and Heritage “Rucksack” where young people would be entitled to have a number of personal experiences throughout their school career which provided them with a framework upon which they can develop their understanding of their country.

So what might go into such a rucksack? Here are some ideas for starters:

I have visited a Scottish Castle.
I can dance five Scottish dances.
I have attended a Burns Supper.
I can speak some Gaelic.
I have visited a Pictish fort.
I can recite a Scottish poem from memory.
I can cook oatcakes.
I can describe a famous Scottish battle.
I have a favourite Scottish historical character and can tell you all about them.
I can tell you about a former Scottish industry and why it has declined.

These are just a few examples but you can begin to how see we could establish a wider range of learning experiences – in an inter-disciplinary manner – which could help promote a true awareness and appreciation  of their country’s culture, history and heritage. The exciting thing about this approach is that it allows schools to make best use of their local  environment.

Would it work?

TESS Article: Resisting the pressure to “dae sumthin”

Every educational leader, regardless of position, has to wrestle with the powerful temptation to intervene or to meddle in the business of those whom they manage. The logic is fairly simple – “I’m being paid to manage and to be accountable for the work of others – so it’s reasonable that I take action in order to ensure that the desired outcome is achieved.” Maybe it’s something to do with the Scottish work ethic that we feel there’s a need, in the inimitable words of Billy Connolly, to “dae sumthin”.

It’s perhaps one of the most addictive elements of management – “I can fix this” – as the manager learns to solve the problem through direct action. Unfortunately the hidden cost of such behaviour is that it helps to create a dependency culture as everyone comes to know that any problem belongs to the manager – and that the manager will “sort it”.

The ironic consequence of such a relationship is that it leads to dissatisfaction from both sides, i.e. the manager complains that people don’t accept the responsibility which goes with being a professional; and the managed complain that the manager is always interfering with solutions, policies and structures which run directly counter to their ability to do their job.

Yet to challenge such orthodoxy is much more difficult than one might imagine. The pressure to conform to the traditional role of the manager is almost overwhelming. Not to take action, is to be seen to be indecisive, lazy, cowardly, unimaginative or simply not being up to the job. In a similar vein the manager’s own boss has expectations about effective management behaviour and in many cases is expecting the manager to come up with a plan of action that is, most probably proactive, innovative and definitive. It’s this latter adjective which is the most telling in terms of the relationship between the manager and the managed. The definition of the word “definitive” in this sense is “final and unable to be questioned or altered”. In a sense this form of manager’s plan is the Holy Grail, that is something that can be passed on to others and is implemented without question.

Of course, things are never as simple as that for as we know others must carry out the manager’s plan and there exists “many a slip twixt lip and cup”, especially if the “managed” do not fully subscribe to the manager’s solution. It’s into this educational Middle-earth that the manager’s initiatives and centralised plans are launched only to be subverted, modified or ignored. And so it goes on with managers having to conform to their role by taking action, to which they are probably addicted anyway, and the managed expecting the action, criticising if no action is taken, but being free to criticise the action as they have played no part in it’s development.

So how might we help managers escape from the tyranny of the need to always “dae sumthin” in the face of a perceived problem? Perhaps a starting point might be for local authorities to shift from being action focused, i.e. we will implement, act, do; to becoming outcome focused and supporting and enabling the schools to work out the most appropriate action for themselves.  The reality is that what works well in one school is not necessarily the best solution in another school. Yet the pressure to work out the universal solution and to implement it across an entire council is difficult to resist – particularly for those of us who have been addicted to taking action throughout our careers. That’s not to say that local authorities should never seek to implement an action across all schools but at the very least there should be a loop where we ask ourselves if our preferred course of action empowers or disempowers our colleagues in schools.

Nevertheless, Scottish education does appear to be thirled to the idea of “daen things”.  It would be a brave person who wouldn’t back a highly technical, carefully managed and comprehensive plan to implement a course of action across every school in an authority, against a strategy which placed the decision about what type of action to take in the hands of the individual school.


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I watched one of my favourite films this evening. Kes made a big impact on me when I first saw this film as 13 year-old. I remember laughing and crying in equal measure and it's interesting to reflect upon how much it might have influenced me throughout my career.

As a former PE teacher and Head Teacher I'd like to think I didn't conform to these stereotypes - but perhaps I'm not best placed to judge.

Making decisions


Having to make difficult decisions is a key part of my job. Some of these decisions can often be unpopular – but I suppose that’s what I get paid for.

Every decision is usually associated with a variety of options which will usually have a number of distinct features, namely:

  1. Consequences – each option will have positive and negative consequences directly associated with that course of action;
  2. Emotional attachment – there are usually people who will have an positive emotional response to one of the options and a negative emotional response to another.
  3. Evidence – most options will have associated evidence which can be used to either support or counter their effectiveness
  4. Familiarity – options which have proved successful in the past.

My own decision making process tries to take account of the above but there is one other question which I ask myself whenever I have to make a decision: How does this choice of option relate to other features of our practice?

In this regard I was deeply influenced in the mid 90’s by systems thinking as described by Peter Senge which transformed my personal practice.

Prior to that time I tended to make decisions based on a rough amalgam of the four factors mentioned earlier but where I looked at individual decisions as discrete entities. The lesson I learned from Senge was to see “things” as being part of a system, or part of a whole and that no one decision is ever disconnected from another – particularly if you are trying to achieve an overall goal.

Lastly, there needs to be a moral/ethical filter associated with the decision making process and reference to my own personal integrity and honesty.

However, all other things being equal it’s the connectedness to other factors and their relationship to the overall goal which will have decisive effect on which option will be selected.

You’re Welcome

East Lothian Council, in partnership with Lothian and Borders Police, will be hosting a series of Internet safety and responsible use training sessions for parents with pupils in P5 – S6 across the county.  This is in response to growing concerns, expressed by individual parents and parent councils, about how to make sure young people use the internet safely and responsibly. The sessions are also designed to show parents how they can protect their youngsters from on-line dangers.

The training sessions will be led by Ollie Bray (Depute Head at Musselburgh Grammar School) and PC David Gunn from Lothian and Borders Police. Both Mr Bray and Mr Gunn are accredited Ambassadors of the Child Exploitation Online Protection Agency (CEOP).

The training session has already been piloted within the Musselburgh Cluster and received positive response from over 200 parents. The content of the evening includes background information on new technologies and information about computers and mobile phones and the law. But the main part of the presentation involves Mr Bray taking the parents into some ‘real’ social networking spaces that young people use. This includes Habba Hotel, Teenspot, MSN Instant Messenger and Bebo. The session also gives advice on how you can protect your home computer and advice on on-line gaming.

Everybody who attends the training will have access to a comprehensive on-line handout.

The sessions will be held at:

    ·       Preston Lodge High- 3 June 2008
    ·       Ross High – 10 June 2008
    ·       Dunbar Grammar – 11 June 2008
    ·       Knox Academy – 18 June 2008
    ·       North Berwick High – 24 June 2008

All training sessions will take place between 7 – 9pm.

Ollie Bray, Depute Head at Musselburgh Grammar School, says:
‘This is a very exciting time for East Lothian to be leading the way in Internet Training for staff, parents, families and pupils.  We are going to use the feedback we gain from these sessions to inform good practice nationally through the Scottish Learning Festival.’

These evenings will start promptly at 7pm and have a limited availability. If you have any queries or you would like to book a place on one of these sessions, please email Tess Watson, (Acting Education Support Officer) at or log onto

Games up…


I met this morning with Chris Mullender, a games developer from Dunbar,  Ollie Bray, Graham Sales (a student of gaming technology at Abertay University) and David Gilmour to explore how we might make better use of gaming technology within the East Lothian education system.

I was intrigued to find out that schools would be much better making use of gaming technology – both hardware and software – than the expensive education specific alternative. Chris made a very powerful point that gaming technology has been tested to the nth degree and is designed to meet the needs of children in a manner which is beyond the smaller educational bespoke companies. We should be seeking to make use of this knowledge – particularly in times of financial pressure.

We explored two separate dimensions in our conversation:

  1. Using gaming technology as a learning tool; and
  2. Engaging students in the development of gaming software.

Musselburgh Grammar School  and some of  our primaries are doing some great things in relation to the first theme but very little is being done in the relation to the second. We wondered if there might be some potential to organise a competition for primary pupils in the first instance to receive some specific tuition in games development before they tried to create their own games and then submit them for judging by their peers.  Each team would have a combination of skills such as programmers, artists, producers, writers, etc – a real collective approach.  We wondered of there was a potential sponsor out there who would like to help us begin to stimulate an East Lothian gaming culture which might in the longer term have economic spin-offs for the county. 

Apparently many of the games developers which have given Dundee such an enviable reputation in this field initally developed their skills and interest at a school computer club.

Last observation – and new one on me – one of the big challenges facing the gaming industry is to link up developers with artists.  We have fantastic artists in our schools – why couldn’t we link up senior student programmers and artists in our schools and create real companies in our secondary schools?