Release them if you dare

See – Curriculum for Excellence – senior phase options

Option 37. No parent/teacher meetings in senior phase – replace with student/teacher review meetings – parents can shadow.

This might appear to one of the more extreme options to be considered but it’s worth holding back on an immediate reaction until further explained.

By the time students get into the senior phase (the last three years of upper secondary school education) they will have spent 13 years in the formal education system – with at least one, if not two, parent teacher consultations/interviews each year.

Parents are keen throughout that period to know how their child is progressing, know how they can help their child, and generally show an interest in their child’s education. In the early years of education this can be very helpful and builds a strong partnership between the student , the school and the parent.

Yet we still think that by attending parents evenings with our 16 or 17 year old child and think that we can influence them when we get home to up their rate of study or change their attitude to school. Some hope! (I know – because I was that parent!)

So perhaps it is time to consider alternatives?

I wrote a poem when my brother’s son was born which seems quite appropriate for this topic:


Take your child by the hand

and hold the future there

Keep him upright if you can

Release him if you dare

It’s this last line which most of us as parents have difficulty with, i.e. letting go. 

Yet within a year or two they are off to university, or college, or employment and we no longer have the influence we thought we had when they were at school.

So why is it that we don’t try to prepare young people for that transition from the claustrophobic atmosphere of  parental control (even if it is a fallacy)  – where we are metaphorically sitting on our child’s shoulder?

The concept of helicopter parents  has been well documented in the world of higher education – or “overparenting” – yet we, as parents, have been conditioned over the previous 15 years to think that we have to step in to protect and shape our child’s future.

Perhaps we need to consider breaking this umbilical cord whilst our children are still at school and get them to take more responsibility for their own progress? It’s at this point that the change from parent/teacher consultations to student/teacher consultations begins to take on more of logical perspective.

The idea would be based on a dialogue between the teacher and the student, at a time when the parent is available, but where the parent shadows their child and doesn’t interview the teacher.

In this way the responsibility for the learning process shifts from the parent to the child and the learning partnership between the teacher and the student is reinforced.

Of course, I know that many teachers and students would find this observed discussion to be extremely difficult. The tongue-tied student and the teacher who is uncomfortable speaking to the student as an equal is very easy to imagine. But if well managed through a conversation template. e.g Student: “this how I feel I’m doing in this  subject”; “This is how you could help me learn better” and Teacher: “You seem to be having problems with ……..” and “You are showing real promise in ………” and “If you were to try to ……………….”

The role of the parent is essentially observational but could have a concluding element where the student speaks to their parent in front of the teacher about their progress or otherwise.

I know this seems like a radical idea but when you see how ill-prepared young people really are for going off into the world of higher education or employment then anything which prepares them to be more independent and responsible learners has to be a good thing.




Acting opportunity

No, not some advert for a stage show.  I’ve been appointed as (Acting) Director of Education and Children’s Services for East Lothian Council. I went through a very rigorous interview process involving a 90 minute in-tray exercise on Tuesday and  90 minute interview on Wednesday in front of a panel of seven elected members.

I’m excited about the opportunity and will try to set out my goals for this period over the next few days.

Interview Advice


Interviews are a very stressful but there are some key points which people should try to keep in mind:

  1. Always answer the question (you’d be surprised by how often people drift into some other area);
  2. Keep referring to your experience and mention children (once again too many people never mention kids);
  3. Don’t keep rambling (I always try to keep to three points at the most – some people can try to include up to ten examples in a single question!);
  4. Check if the school you are applying for has been inspected (it provides very useful background info’; and demonstrates that you can explore an issue in depth);
  5. Try to speak with some passion/emotion (not over-emotional) about your subject – you are going to have to enthuse staff and pupils;
  6. Talk about teams and others and your role in these teams;
  7. Never say “I’m a good communicator/motivator/organiser/etc, etc – let your actions make it clear that you have these qualities;
  8. Avoid the unecessary use of jargon – so many people think they have to press all the buttons in interview by mentioning every buzzword/initiative/theory;
  9. Don’t read lots of literature about policies, theory, initaitives, etc.  If you don’t know it as part of your current job then it will only sound like you are trying to hit “buttons’ when you are being interviewed.
  10. Use examples which show how you think – don’t just say when asked to give an example that “I did this…….”  remember – it’s not so much what you do but why you do it.

Other additions to this list are welcome.

Head Teacher Interviews

I was interviewing all day for the vacant head teacher post at Ross High School.

We’ve recently introduced a more rigorous long-leet process which has three parts.

1. Candidates were asked to write an essay in response to a set task which they received on the day. They had 45 minutes to write their response.

2. Candidates had a ten minute break and then given a scenario which involved them having to take a school assembly with five minutes notice – not an unusual occurence in schools. The candidate then had to present their assembly topic  in a role play situation where the interview panel played the part of the pupils.

3. The interview panel asked three questions relating to the written response which they had seen 15 minutes prior to the interview commencing. There then followed another 5 questions about issues which had not been covered in the first part of the interview.

We all felt that this approach was successful in providing a more reliable and comprehensive interview process.  However, this is still falls a long way short of how other organisations go about the interview process for senior positions.  I’d like to explore the introduction of competency testing and psychometric testing but any such move must involve teaching unions, personnel and parental groups.

I went out to the school board this evening where we selected the three candidates who will go forwards to short leet.

North Berwick High School – Headteacher

Friday 20th January

8.15-8.45 Education Officer's Meeting – I had to leave early to get to the Town House for the North Berwick Headteacher interviews.

9.00-12.00 We interviewed three candidates for the vacancy, which is due Colin Cutherland's 18 month secondment to the Scottish Executive. We appointed Stewart McKinnon, Depute Headteacher, Musselburgh Grammar School. I'm convinced Stewart will do an excellent job and build upon Colin's very successful tenure.

12.00-1.00 Tried to pick up on correspondence and phoencalls

2.00-3.30 Personnel issue with union reps.

3.30-4.30 Preparation for the implementation of SELS. (student evaluation of learning) Callum Stewart, Depute and Preston Lodge High School is going to help us smooth out any difficulties. We hope to launch the system in the next few weeks but I'd like to ensure we have a robust system prior to launch. Access
SELS manual

Best Value

Friday 7th October

In at 7.00am to clear my desk for the day. Meeting of Education Officers at 8.15am. This is the weekly sweep of school issues arising from contact with HTs. I’ve missed the last few EO meetings for a variety of reason but it is proving very useful in tracking problems and improving communication between us all. Of course it doesn’t help that we are down two education officers.

9.30am – 1.00pm Management Summit at Musselburgh racecourse: This was for all managers employed by East Lothian Council. It was focussed upon how the council can prepare for the best value audit which will take place in 2007. It was interesting hearing how other department go about the audit process. It would seem that education has quite sophisticated evaluation systems – particularly when we introduce SELS.

One of the challenges presented to the audience was to consider if their services could be provided more effectively by another organisation. For example, could road repairs be contracted out to a private company?; could payroll be replaced by a banking service? That set me to thinking about the implications for education. Is the current system the best way to provide a quality educational experience?

What are the alternatives? The most obvious is to remove education from local authority control and make schools totally autonomous. This has obvious attractions – particularly for Headteachers. So what are the downsides? Well – when things are going well there isn’t really a downside – an effective school is an effective school. The problem comes when things are not going well: when a school is underachieving; when the children in one school are receiving a very inferior education in comparison with the school down the road; when teachers are working an environment which is not conducive to good health or professional development. In such circumstances there is a need to have some mechanism for quality assurance and external support. The HMIe inspections are one such mechanism but with schools only likely to be inspected on a six or seven year cycle, the scope for slipping through the net is too great to rely only on the inspectorate.

So we need some means for schools to be held accountable on a more regular basis and offered appropriate support and challenge. In England some authorities have contracted out the management of their schools to a private education company. A fee is set and it is the responsibility of the company to manage the schools to an agreed standard.

The problem with such a system is that I think it loses one of the great strengths of local authority responsibility – the notion of community attachment and belonging. Schools are something in which most communities take great pride – it belongs to them – you just need to observe the furore when any attempt is made to close a school. If schools are to serve a community they need to be connected to the democratic process in a very direct and clearly understood manner. The current system – for all its weaknesses – ensures that the locally elected councillors are accountable to their electorate and – ultimately – for the quality of education provided in the local school. If we need to do anything we need to make this link even more obvious than it is at present. One of the things I’ve learned from PPP is that private companies are fundamentally driven by the profit motive – and profit alone. So when you enter into a contract with a private company they assume responsibility – the phrase used in this world is the “transfer of risk”. The problem occurs around the edges of a contract. For concrete parts of the contract – if you can excuse the pun – it is clear if the contractor is fulfilling their responsibility. However, key parts of an education service are not concrete – they are abstract things, such as professional ethics; notions of duty and service; moral obligation to serve the needs of children and the community. In my recent experience if something isn’t explicitly stated in a contract then it is unlikely that it will be done by a contractor. The problem with such a mentality is that it reduces everything to a lowest common denominator – rather than creating an environment for professionalism and creativity can flourish.

However, that is not to say that the current system is working well – only to suggest that it has the potential to do a lot better than a profit driven enterprise. Our challenge is to create something which matches the best practice of commercial companies – their efficiency, dynamism and effectiveness – whilst ensuring that we retain our obligation to serve the needs of our communities.

Back to the office for 1.00pm to meet Sheila McKendrick – we are interviewing four candidates on Monday for the vacant education officer position. We were creating the scenario which candidates will have to respond to as the first part of the interview. The scenario – which I’ll post here on Monday night – describes a situation which an education officer might encounter in a school and asks them to identify an appropriate strategy.

2.00pm – first departmental briefing session. We are introducing a weekly briefing session to improve communication within the department – seemed to be well received.

2.30-3.30pm met with a teacher and their union rep about a phased return to work after illness

3.30pm meeting with Ollie Bray and David Gilmour to discuss the development of exc-el. We had a wide ranging discussion about weblogging; creating our community; sustainability; search facilities; the website; and an exc-el conference.

Ollie and David bring very different but complimentary skills to the table. David has many years experience in management levels in the nuclear industry before he decided upon a change of career and started teaching. He looks at education from a unique perspective and is able to see things that some of us close up too the action fail to recognise. Ollie was a member of staff at Glenmore Lodge – Scotland’s outdoor training centre. He is steeped in mountaineering, canoeing and outdoor life. From what I see this gives him two things – firstly – a recognition that you have to depend on working with other people to succeed (in his former life your life depended upon it) and secondly – a determination to make education and learning an exciting and life enhancing experience. In his new role as PT of Geography at Dunbar Grammar School it’s obvious that his enthusiasm for his subject is matched by his enjoyment of working with young people. He is constantly looking at his practice with a view to making the children’s learning experience better.

We reflected upon weblogging as a central core of the exc-el project. We considered setting up different sections on the site such a probationers blogs; Headteachers blogs; parents’ blogs; pupils’ blogs. After some discussion we realised that this only continues to place everyone involved in education into neat boxes as opposed to creating something which challenges that traditional perspective. We intend to develop the search facility on the site which will enable a person to look at a subject from a variety of perspectives – for example – if you wanted to find out about exclusions, you could enter exclusion on the search facility. The search engine finds every entry which mentions that issue on the site and presents them for the reader. We hope to make this facility more sophisticated but the essential part will be that it breaks down all the traditional barriers between the various groups engaged in the process of education.

Then we touched on the idea of “high reliability” organisations. David talked about the business of aircraft carriers and the need for a complex organisation with so many variables working together without making mistakes. I’ve come across this idea in relation to airports. Education is different but perhaps we tolerate too many mistakes? Or perhaps it’s just that mistakes in education are less obvious – it’s not quite the same when French teacher fails to prepare his lessons and bores kids rigid, thereby switching them off languages for good, compared to a plane crashing because an air traffic controller misread his screen. Our mistakes have more of a long term impact but how good could schools be if they tried to adopt something of the high reliability organisation mentality?

Sustainability of initiatives is always a difficult thing to manage. Usually an initiative survives as long as funding is available, the key person is in post, or enthusiasm is maintained. We are seeking to create something which is much more organic and can constantly be reinventing itself as time goes by. I’ve struggling to come up with a metaphor to capture this idea – the best I could think of – and I know it’s a potentially offensive notion – is that of “cells” (small goups of associated people). Imagine, if you will, a group of people who are linked by a common purpose but who are not dependent upon a hierarchical top-down system of organisation. Instead we create small groups of people, or cells – or better still they create themselves – using the website to publicise their work and to build and share their practice. It seems chaotic but it is a totally different way of working from what we currently experience. I’ll play around with this idea but would welcome comments.

Part of the exc-el statement of intent is to arrange an annual conference. Ollie is keen to develop an IT conference in East Lothian similar to SETT but with more of a practical focus involving teachers, students and parents. We played around with this idea before striking on the concept of developing a conference which brought the exc-el website to life. In other words create a conference which mirrors the website and gives participants the chance to meet and bring together some of the issues which have been raised the past year on the site.

Headteacher shortlists

Directorate Meeting 8.30am -10.00pm Range of items but had a very interesting discussion relating to criteria for evaluating the success of education and children's services integration – with a particular focus upon intergated community schools. The Scottish Exec have shelved ideas to have a “How Good is Our Integrated Community School”. Ths can only be a good thing as we are coming down with such evaluation documents. However, we recognise that one of the ways that you can lever change in a system is to introduce rigorous means of measuring effectiveness. Alan Ross and I are going to meet this week with a view to setting out some ideas about the purpose of integrated children's services. We will use that as starting point for an engine room involving a range of people to establish possible performance criteria with which review practice in schools and clusters.

Out to Brunton Theatre for 10.30am – Europe in Business – this is an annual event for senior students to encourage them to adopt an open mind to business links in Europe and the importance of languages.

Back to office for 12.00 to meet with a school's admin' assistant. The person had requested the meeting to share some ideas they had for improving the quality of our service. I was delighted to receive so many positive and constructive suggestions. It proved to me – if it needed proving – that by opening up our culture and acting upon suggestions in a positive manner that we can initiate dramatic and sustained change which meets the needs of children, teachers and all those involved in support services.

Schools Liaison Group from 2.00pm – 5.00pm. This involves all the Education Officers, Derek Haywood and Sheila Ainslie. This is a key group for articulating broad strategic goals and with action in schools. We focussed upon a range of topics relating to the attainment action plan such as leadership development; data collection; and staff development. The attainment action plan is providing a common purpose and clear focus for our actions.

7.00pm Stoneyhill School Board – Alan Blackie and I made a presentation to the board about the long leet process and recommended short list candidates.


Primary/Nursery Headtreachers' Executive Meeting. We are determined to make this a more strategically focussed meeting – previously it was overwhelmed with school specific detail. Patricia MacCall, Headteacher Campie Primary School, has put together an excellent set of proposals to ensure that issues are properly filtered and addressed – mainly using the clusters and Education Officers. In this way we can free up the meeting to address how we can improve the quality of primary/nursery education in East Lothian.

We spent a long time discussing isues relating to the attainment action plan. These included: LEADERSHIP – introducing the 360 degree leadership review; coaching programme for Depute Headteachers; challenging Headteacher isolation by using this website; PT seminars; and sharing good practice in management practice (there is arecognition that we all have something to learn from each other in the way in which we handle the administration tasks which face us on a day-to-day basis and have the potential to detract from our ability to lead) – we will be setting up a session at our next HT meeting to enable us all to share examples of such good practice. TEACHING AND LEARNING – SELS – a demo will be given at the next HT meeting; teacher exchange; PERFORMANCE MONITORING – explaining the scorecard and how we (as a collegiate de[artment) are scrutinised by the council; CURRICULUM FLEXIBILITY – decluuttering the curriculum and primary school timetabling.

The feedback from HTs about this discussion was very positive and hopefully we can sustain this level of professional debate and focus. A number of other issues were addressed during the meeting – most notably the idea of how we improve children's ability to learn – I'm going to meet with Ann McLannachan to explore this area further.

Quick bite of lunch before a three and half hour stint interviewing long leet candidates for the Headteacher's position at Stoneyhill Primary School. This is my first involvement in HT interviews and it's good to be able to learn from Alan Blackie who has so much experience in this area. Interviews are a very stressful for the candidates but there are some key points which people should try to bare in mind when preparing: always answer the question (you'd be surpised by how often people drift into some other area); keep referring to your experience and mention children (once again too many people never mention kids); don't keep rambling (I always try to keep to three ponts at the most – some people can try to include up to ten examples in a single question!); check if the school you are applying for has been inspected (it provides very useful background info' and demonstrates that you can explore an issue in depth); try to speak with some passion about your subject – you are going to have to enthuse staff and pupils – if this doesn't come across in interview it might go against you; talk about teams and others; don't say “I'm a good communicator/motivator/organiser/etc, etc – let your actions make it clear that you have these qualities; avoid the unecessary use of jargon – so many people think they have to press all the buttons in interview by mentioning every buzzword/initiative/theory. There are plenty more but these will do for now.

Managed to get to my desk for the first time today at 4.45pm.