Interview: Maureen McKenna, education expert advising London’s VRU
Tuesday, September 26, 2023
Fiona Simpson speaks to the education expert on her role advising London’s Violence Reduction Unit.
Education expert Maureen McKenna has been appointed to London’s Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) as an education consultant and is set to aid the development of its inclusion charter.
Mckenna was formerly the director of education at Glasgow City Council, where she oversaw a 90 per cent drop in school exclusions – both permanent and temporary – over 14 years. Over the same time period, violence in Glasgow’s education settings was also reduced by half.
In her new role, McKenna will work with the VRU and its Young People’s Action Group to prioritise equitable practices in areas such as the school curriculum and anti-racism, and tackle disproportionality in school exclusion rates.
The inclusion charter, which is set to be launched in February, will work in partnership with schools, pupil referral units and local authority safeguarding teams to reduce the number of children excluded from school in a bid to protect them from involvement in violent crime.
You oversaw a huge drop in exclusion rates in Glasgow, can you describe your work and why it was such a success?
It was very much about the context of Glasgow at that time. We set ourselves an ambition to be a nurturing city and used that as our hook, but really, it’s about relational practice. It’s about investing in your staff, it’s about supporting and challenging schools to think about the context of the child, what children have come from and what their experiences need. The bottom line is they need to be in school if we’re going to get positive educational outcomes for them.
Does London have similar challenges to those seen in Glasgow over exclusions?
London’s very different from Glasgow, with different challenges and a totally different governance context for a start off with how the boroughs link with their schools and multi-academy trusts (MATs), but children and young people are the same regardless of where you go.
You have to think about your context and you have to think also about partnerships. There has to be that recognition that schools cannot do this on their own.
What is your role with London’s VRU?
My role is really to work between the VRU and the education community and to be able to say what do we need in order to bring the charter to life because you can produce it, you can stick it on a poster and stick it on your wall, but you’ve got to have the education community embrace it and recognise that there needs to be change.
What are the key challenges facing local authorities and education leaders in London that should be addressed by the charter?
What’s really important is that we’re ensuring that it is the people of London that is coming up with the principles that London needs, and not what Manchester needs or Cardiff, or Glasgow.
As you would imagine, what the young people are focused on so far is cultural competence. Anti-racism must be a strong flavour that runs through it from the context and the diversity in London.
Do you have ambitions to cut exclusions in the capital at the same level as you did in Glasgow?
I’ve never said zero exclusions or zero suspensions, it’s just mad, but we should be doing it for the right reasons and we should be looking at the reasons behind why children and young people are behaving in the way they are.
But we have to learn patience with this. In Glasgow it was several years before I saw any kind of impact or outcomes. If you can do it slowly and properly, the rewards are immense. Youth violence dropped by 50 per cent in Glasgow, we used to have at least 20 young people in secure care at any one time, now there’s two.
You can change lives with this if you invest in the right way and you have that open door with partnerships.
Why is inclusive education so important particularly following the pandemic?
It is that routine and structure. Coming to your work is a habit, coming to school is a habit, and we took that habit away from children. We do have to expect, with all the pressures on young people nowadays, that it’s going to take time to bring that back.
The inclusion charter should be about looking at what support in schools do we need. I do believe that all schools, all teachers want to do the very best for their children, just sometimes it becomes difficult.
The inclusion charter should be about how we can support schools, how we can think about partnerships.
More than anything else it’s about the rights of the child and right of that child to a good quality education.
Why is it so crucial that you include young people in creating the inclusive education charter?
Because it’s for them. It’s about young people and you bringing their voice out. I think that is something that the London VRU has done really well in the past.
MAUREEN MCKENNA CV
August 2023 – present: Adviser to London’s VRU
2007 – 2022: Director of Education at Glasgow City Council
2015: Awarded an OBE for services to education in Glasgow and Malawi
2000 – 2007: Roles including inspector, national specialist for mathematics and district inspector for Glasgow and North Ayrshire at Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education
1981 – 2000: Teacher