THERE is a moment in the 1980 movie Gregory’s Girl, the Bill Forsyth classic set in a Scottish high school, which always makes Tony McDaid laugh out loud.

“Chic Murray, who plays the headmaster, is being sold cakes in his office by one of the pupils,” smiles South Lanarkshire Council’s executive director of education. “Meanwhile, a child dressed as a penguin is roaming around in the background – we never find out who he is, or why. It’s so like real life – teaching is full of hilarious, random stuff. You wouldn’t believe how many crazy Chic Murray-style moments

I have had as a headteacher.”

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McDaid’s rise from PE teacher to executive director of education resources, responsible for 6000 staff and an annual budget of £280 million, has been swift and successful.

He took up the position in January after a spell overseeing curriculum development and quality assurance as part of the education resources management team – a role, he says, that helped him develop his knowledge of how education works and how it makes an impact on the lives of young people and their families.

It has also put him at the heart of the council’s implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence and its ambitious modernisation programme, which has already produced 17 new secondary schools and will yield the rebuilding or refurbishment of all 126 of the area’s primaries.

McDaid has already experienced significant change in education, and more reform is on its way, as the Scottish Government continues to tackle the attainment gap and declining performance in international rankings with new powers for head teachers and plans for regional collaboration.

“As a teacher, a depute head, a head teacher, change is all I have known,” he says. “The difference today is the speed of change, and the fact that change is in the public domain – it is a national priority.

“I am not cautious to change – but I hope it is well considered.

“I don’t think change should be a knee-jerk reaction, but rather it should be about holding the nerve, making sure we have the right people in place, and taking time to reflect on the bits that work before we move on.”

He adds: “The changes we are facing now could be seismic.

I hope there is a clear path, to make sure any change benefits the children and young people in our schools.”

McDaid grew up in the Gorbals district of Glasgow with his mother, who was a cleaner in the local leisure centre, and two sisters, and attended St John Bosco Secondary.

“I liked school and the opportunities it gave me,” he says. “I had a real interest in and passion for sport – my P5 report card said: ‘Tony will be a PE teacher, definitely.’

“I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I experienced great kindness and care at school and that stayed with me.”

McDaid was a popular teacher, who coached the school football and basketball teams. He remains devoted to basketball, coaching an under-16 girls’ team in his spare time. “It keeps me sane,” he jokes.

After graduating from the then Scottish School of Physical Education at Jordanhill teacher training college, his first job was at Lourdes Secondary in Cardonald in Glasgow. His second post was as principal teacher of PE at his former

high school.

“Being back at John Bosco was odd – especially as some of the teachers who taught me were still there,” he says. “It was a very different place by then – much smaller, and it eventually closed. But it was dear to my heart.”

Physical activity, health and wellbeing remain subjects he is passionate about.

“PE used to be a peripheral subject, but we have come a long way since the stereotypical image of 1970s physical education teachers,” he says.

“Active schools co-ordinators, out of school clubs and teams are all central to the way things have moved on – we need other people in our schools, not everything can be delivered by teachers.”

McDaid is married to Carolyne, a former teacher who works in education for Stirling Council, and the couple have two grown-up daughters, one of whom is about to start a new job as an acting principal teacher.

“It has been interesting, watching her join the profession, and seeing her experience the joy of the job, the satisfaction when it’s going well,” McDaid says.

“I have seen it in her when she talks about those joyous moments, when things happen you perhaps haven’t anticipated.”

He pauses. “That’s what you hope all teachers get – that’s what sustains you, through the tough days and the long slogs.”

For McDaid, one particular moment stands out. After John Bosco Secondary closed in 1996 he moved to Cathkin High, also as a principal teacher, but a spell covering for a depute head brought him to the attention of senior management, who encouraged him to apply for

the position.

He enjoyed the change of role and the challenge it brought, and in 2006 he moved up again, to become headteacher at Hunter High in East Kilbride which was due to merge with Claremont High the following year.

“My first task, really, was to oversee the merger of two very big schools, and I became head of the new school, Calderglen High,” he recalls. “I remember the first day of the new term, standing on the footbridge over the main road, and watching the pupils leave at four o’clock.

“There was a queue of young people about half a mile long, all calmly walking together, and I remember thinking – actually, this is going to be OK.”

He smiles: “After all the hard work, all the anxiety surrounding a merger like that, particularly for parents whose children are about to sit exams – it had been a tough year, but it’s moments like those which sustain us.”

In his new corporate role, liaising with headteachers, elected members and fellow directors and policing budgets – education represents half of SLC’s resources – he accepts there is a level of publicity attached to the job unlike anything he has previously encountered.

“I joked at a conference recently that I had to phone my mum every time my photograph appeared in the newspapers alongside stories of everything from obese five-year-olds to drunk teenagers,” he laughs.

“I had to reassure her – these things aren’t my fault, I didn’t cause them.

“You don’t do this job without understanding there is accountability. It’s the same as being a headteacher – when things are going well, it’s great; but when something bad happens, you know it’s coming

to your door and you step up

to that.

“It all comes back to getting the best for children and young people. Every single child has something in them that can be brought out. What is teaching about, if not that?”

He adds: “What we really need to do now is to engage our teachers – professional learning is the game changer.

“In the 27 years since I qualified as a teacher, everything – from what we know about young people to technology and psychology – has changed and improved. Of course, there is still much to do, and we don’t have all the answers.

“But teachers have to be reflective practitioners, who have time to talk to other teachers, maybe see a brilliant idea elsewhere and try it out themselves. We want a mix of people – graduates and people who have come from other careers with different experience.

“A school community has to reflect its own community. It’s a great Scottish principle and a tremendous strength that people generally attend the schools in their own communities.”

McDaid is taken aback when asked if he regrets leaving teaching behind. “I hope I haven’t,” he says, simply. “I miss the daily classroom interaction, but helping young people is still at the heart of what I do now.

“I hope that because of my previous roles, I have empathy and understanding. There is danger in forgetting the daily challenges headteachers face.

I hope I haven’t forgotten that.”

He pauses. “When I was a PE teacher, it might not have been what some would call an important job but it was to me.

I put my heart and soul into it. And I’ve done that all the way along. All I want to do is make sure South Lanarkshire delivers an educational experience that benefits all of its young people. That’s it.”

“I feel just the same now, as I did when I was a class teacher.”