FOR the past decade, Glasgow's schools have been on the up and up - attainment is steadily rising while exclusions are falling.

The city used to see a mass exodus of young families who hopped over the border to East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire when it was time for children to go to school.

But under the stewardship of Maureen McKenna, Glasgow's longest serving executive director of education, all the entrenched trends have turned around.

"Glasgow was ready to change," Maureen said. "That's why I came.

"I felt it could do so much better because the city itself has transformed itself, cultural capital, sporting venue, so it was only right that education should step up to that plate too."

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After 14 years in the job, the announcement last week of Maureen's retirement came as a shock to many but, she said, it is the right time to go.

Next year Glasgow will hold a local election and the former maths teacher said she wants the new incumbent to "have their feet under the table" before a new administration starts to bed in.

She added: "Glasgow has never had a director for that length of time and they just get used to you, nobody likes change. But they'll be fine."

Maureen took over the role in 2007 the year before the city council began the highly disputed and controversial process of closing and merging primary schools.

At the time, furious mothers formed a campaign group against the move, taking up residence on the roofs of schools and even chaining themselves to the city chambers.

Maureen remembers being invited to a community meeting, where she had expected to face a small group of parents and local councillors.

She said: "It was a terrible, terrible time.

"At that meeting, I got out of the car and coming along Balmore Road towards me was a whole raft of people who had obviously taken down their curtain poles and their sheets and had made a huge big signs.

"There were hundreds of them.

"The Labour councillor was giving me dogs abuse, the SNP councillor was giving me dogs abuse and at one point a man stood up and blamed me for the closure of the local post office on Bilsland Drive."

It was a baptism of fire but now the city's fortunes have transformed and more schools are being built to accommodate demand, including the creation of a new city centre school to cope with families moving to the Merchant City and Laurieston.

When Maureen took on the role, some secondaries had as many as one-fifth of pupils not in school with schools seeing high percentages of teenagers leaving without even one Higher.

Taking over the position, she chose to focus on weaving wellbeing throughout the education system.

She said: "Glasgow is a city like no other in Scotland.

"It has the highest levels of deprivation: nearly 60% of our children live in the 20% most deprived postcodes. Over 40% live in the 10% most deprived postcodes so a lot of our young people live in loving families but loving families who struggle with everyday life.

"It was important for schools to understand the wider role they play in developing civic society. As well as the basics of education, we are growing tomorrow's citizens.

"Youth offending has dropped by 50%. Now, I don't have any research that says that's all on schools, but there must be a causal link because of the work we have done on helping children self-regulate, on their decision making.

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"You've got to give children their voice so they are able to exert in a school setting and reflect and understand why they behave sometimes - so they are able to make good decisions."

The city's schools are now featuring in books by education experts in the UK and overseas while Maureen is regularly interviewed about the Glasgow system.

Whoever takes over the role, she says, will have to focus on how schools move out of the pandemic - and wellbeing will still be crucial.

She said: "We've had such a hard time the last 18 months and so coming out of it, wellbeing and learning have to be linked together and we are really well placed for that in Glasgow.

"Nurture isn't about being soft and fluffy. It's not about having small children sit on your knee. This is hard edged.

"This is about high expectations, about using science to understand why children behave the way they do.

"In this we are drawing from international research and getting the environment right.

"Without losing sight of the fact our core business is learning and exams are important too, having positive attainment is important, but education is about so, so much more than that and so much more powerful than that."

One of the main lessons of the pandemic, Maureen says, is that not all learning needs to take place in school.

Glasgow already has a strong focus on outdoor learning, implemented by Maureen after observing that many children were growing up in "harsh, concrete environments".

Metal play equipment in primary colours was replaced with natural materials - and risk was integrated into the curriculum, which gave health and safety inspectors some additional grey hairs.

Maureen said: "I gave permission for a firepit in a nursery and health and safety went off their nut.

"Even at three and four years old, they are risk assessing themselves and it goes back to decision making and pupil voice.

"We don't tell pupils what not to do, we tell them why they shouldn't do it. It takes longer and it's harder but the effects are much more powerful."

With its size and its socio-economic make up, in Glasgow schools regularly experience events that may never occur in other local authorities.

Maureen says an extremely hard part of the job has been home visits to families where a child has died.

Schools often provide non-educational supports for families or work with third sector organisations to do so.

Maureen said: "Our core business is education. We have to be careful. We're not social workers, there's a limit to what we can do. However, we can bring in all these different partners.

"So, I can think of a school where a 10-year-old boy doesn't come in. School phones the house and can't get anyone so they ring the housing association and ask them to go up to the door.

"The officer goes up to the door and knows there's somebody in. So she calls the police who come out and find the 10-year-old boy caring for his mum who has severe addiction issues and he didn't want to leave her in case she didn't wake up.

"We can't do everything but if we can't do it, we know somebody who can and that's the really important bit about the partnerships."

During her time in charge, Maureen also set up the Malawi Leaders of Learning programme, a two-way project in the African country where knowledge and skills are shared, resources are sent to Malawi and pupils and teachers have the chance to travel between the two countries.

The pandemic has made the project more difficult but Glasgow is still sending books out to Africa and Maureen will be very much involved in the charity following her retirement.

While she says she has "no plans" after she leaves the job, she will also continue as an MCR Pathways mentor in Glasgow too.

Asked what work she feels is still to be done in city schools, Maureen turns again to the effects of the pandemic.

She said: "It's unfinished work. It will never be finished. We need to keep reinventing, we need to keep the focus and we need to keep responding to our different family's needs.

"The pandemic has brought an incredible increase in parents experiencing increased anxiety, increased levels of vulnerability and some of it linked with poverty - so significantly more children claiming school clothing grants, free school meals because their carer's employment was fragile because it was maybe in hospitality, it was maybe the gig economy.

"We used to talk about how we're having children gather a set of keys and the more keys they have on the keyring the more doors they can open and the more choices they can have.

"And that's what we need to continue to do because that job for life no longer exists and they will need character, resilience."

For the next executive director of education, Maureen has two pieces of advice.

"Love Glasgow," she said, "Love Glasgow and you have to have the ability to get right into the detail to help an individual child, as well as taking that strategic view.

"Because if we don't, if someone doesn't care for each and every child, then we would never have made this type of progress."