AS A DISTRICT inspector for Glasgow more than a decade ago Maureen McKenna became increasingly concerned about the number of pupils she saw hanging around on street corners as she drove around the city.

When she stopped to ask one group why they weren’t in class one pupil told her they “didn’t have to do school”.

Now Glasgow’s executive director of education, Ms McKenna, who has just completed a decade in the post, recalls that conversation as pivotal in her subsequent drive to reduce the number of pupils either playing truant or being excluded.

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“Attendance in secondary schools at that time was shocking with as many as one fifth of pupils not in school,” she said.

“Exclusions were on an upward trajectory and I asked the chief executive why he accepted it and he said he was being told by education staff that that was what was expected in Glasgow.

“That was not good enough because pupils have to be in school to be learning.”

While Ms McKenna did not introduce a specific policy to reduce exclusions she challenged headteachers to look at their own statistics and assess whether it was in the best interests of pupils to be removed and whether more could be done to support individuals in class.

Since then there has been a 74 per cent reduction in exclusions with attendance improving markedly.

The prevailing attitude towards exclusions was part of a wider culture of “negativity” about Glasgow schools which Ms McKenna said was critical to address.

“The culture at the time was quite a negative one,” she said.

“It was a city that suffered from the statistics and we were bottom of the hit parade in terms of attainment and top in terms of negative health statistics.

“For a teacher in a school it became overwhelming because you felt the whole time that you were swimming against the tide and everything that came was negative.

“I always thought that inspectors coming into Glasgow started with an assumption that everything was weak and worked up, whereas they went into other authorities with an assumption that it was very good and I needed to change that culture.”

Another key strategy was to improve the quality of teaching across the city with a focus on moving staff out of the classroom if they were either not up to the job or if their conduct was inappropriate.

“The level of performance at Higher in 2007 was completely unacceptable and there was also not an expectation that pupils would go to college or university and it was about challenging those norms and being optimistic,” she said.

“To do that you need high quality teachers, but if teachers cannot meet those levels then maybe teaching is not the job for them.

“We invested in a high quality human resources process so we could support those teachers to move into a different career pathway and we also set a high bar in terms of teacher conduct.

“All staff need to have high standards for themselves as well as pupils.”

The new focus on teacher conduct is well illustrated in an anecdote about a teacher in one secondary who arrived at school after the lunch break drunk and began to insult his class.

One pupil captured the incident on his camera phone and uploaded it onto a social media site. The instincts of the school was to punish the pupil, but Ms McKenna instead put the focus on the teacher, who was subsequently struck off.

“At the beginning we did a lot of work on conduct and competence and shared that with headteachers because there was an acceptance that nothing was done about it,” she said.

“It was obviously not good for the reputation of the school that the boy put the film on the internet and we asked him to take it down, but we also used the video as evidence against the teacher so that pupils knew it was unacceptable behaviour and the teacher was gone. The problem was that the culture was that you punished the child.

“There has been a huge shift in attitudes since then and that is why we can do what we are doing because there is now a completely different culture.”

Ms McKenna said ultimately the upturn in fortunes in Glasgow schools has been down to the dedication of staff working across the nursery, primary and secondary sectors.

She said: “People don’t come to work in education here because it is easy. They come because they want to make a difference. We know it is incredibly hard and we have to give huge credit to the work teachers do every day because it is brilliant.”