Former senior depute director of education for Strathclyde Regional Council

Former senior depute director of education for Strathclyde Regional Council

Born: November 29, 1933; Died: November 17, 2013.

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David McNeill, who has died aged 79, was senior depute director of education for Strathclyde Regional Council from 1990 to 1993 and was closely involved in delivering some of its major initiatives on equality.

He was born in Kirkcaldy and attended Pathhead primary school and thereafter Kirkcaldy High School. In his first year at Edinburgh University, he contracted TB, spending more than a year at Loch Leven hospital. Treatment with the new drug streptomycin enabled him to complete his degree in biology. He then went to Dundee College of Education, gaining a qualification to teach biology, physics, chemistry and mathematics. In due course he became principal teacher of science at Beath High School.

The launching of the first Russian sputnik forced a rethink of science teaching in western Europe. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, a new curriculum was being developed and Mr McNeill was seconded to the Scottish working party. He was then appointed science adviser for Fife, which in turn led to an opportunity to study at the then Napier College in Edinburgh for membership of the Institute of Biologists. He won the college medal for his dissertation on the behaviour of spider monkeys, the outcome of a summer spent studying the Paignton zoo colony.

He married Sheila and in 1961 his first daughter Susan arrived, followed by Fiona in 1965. By now he was assistant director of education for secondary education. Here he developed an effective working relationship with head teachers and the education adviser team. He was far-sighted, investigating devolved school management and indices of deprivation well before their introduction across Scotland. Promoted to depute director, he was appointed as a COSLA representative to the team involved in the difficult 1980s negotiations of a new teachers' contract. Through this he met Frank Pignatelli, who became director of education for Strathclyde in 1988.

In 1989 Mr McNeill was head-hunted to apply for the post of director of education in Tayside region. At the same time Strathclyde advertised for the post of senior depute director of education, with particular focus on the regional policy of equality of opportunity. He thought that this would be an interesting challenge in his final position before retirement. He believed his strength lay in delivering services whilst the new director could provide the inspiration. In January 1990, he was appointed to Strathclyde and moved to Glasgow with his new partner Julie.

The education department's equal opportunities policy created a framework within which there was a coordinated approach applicable to all those experiencing discrimination through age, ethnicity and gender as a barrier to achieving their educational potential. One of Mr McNeill's contributions was to implement a Women into Management programme which helped to shift the gender balance in senior promoted posts. He also provided some new impetus to a team set up to implement the 1988 Sex Equality in the Education Service report which had received little support from senior managers.

His guiding principle was to enable change rather than dictate it. In 1985 Strathclyde was one of the first local authorities in the UK to review provision for under-fives. All services were brought under the control of the pre-five unit within the education department. There was substantial opposition from parents and professionals as the region tried to create a universal service. Mr McNeill's role was to defuse this conflict and ensure the new strategy was implemented.

As lead officer for supported study, he helped to make it one of the most innovative and successful policies implemented in Strathclyde. In 1991 the region received £750,000 from Europe as part of its social strategy. The aim was to give young people, especially in the most disadvantaged areas, access to a supportive learning environment. Separate divisional schemes made for a creative diversity which went far beyond the original aims. Supported study is still in existence, thanks to Mr McNeill's vision.

His people skills derived in part from his lack of pomposity. To quote one team member: "He was friendly, approachable, listened carefully, brought a gentle humour to meetings, but also an understanding and a sympathy with equality issues, and a determination to do something about it." As an outsider he carried none of the baggage of being closely identified with one or other of the Strathclyde divisions. Within working parties he made a point of encouraging talented junior members of staff.

He and Julie loved the French way of life and in 1992 decided to follow their dream by buying a small 16th building in Correns, a village in the Var in Provence. Intended initially as a holiday home, when Mr McNeill retired in 1993 he began to spend five months a year there, improving his French and getting to know the villagers.

He left Scottish education with few regrets and began "re-inventing himself as a French peasant" (his phrase). He developed skills in stonework that were essential to maintain an old peasant house. He enjoyed his morning "pause-café" in the village bar and took up cycling, often completing 12 kilometres before breakfast.

Julie commuted to and from Glasgow until Strathclyde was disbanded then began to work part-time in order to spend more time in France. In 2005 they sold their Glasgow flat and bought a flat on the coast in Antibes, spending the winter months by the sea and summer in the village. Shortly after Susan's untimely death, David and Julie married in Lake Tahoe, California, on 1 April 1995.

Mr McNeill enjoyed excellent health until 2011 when he developed a blood condition, probably the result of the heavy doses of radiation from x-rays when being treated for TB.

He coped with this condition with great courage and good humour right up to his death. He is survived by his sister Margo, Julie, Sheila and his daughter Fiona.