Dr Grace Vickers
CEO, Midlothian Council
What is your journey to Chief Executive of Midlothian Council?
I’m a musician! I graduated with a music degree then went in to education as a music teacher. I was promoted to head-teacher of a secondary school. I moved on to be head of education here at Midlothian, which includes early years, secondary, lifelong learning, and employability linked to economic development. So my background was all here in Edinburgh where I was born and brought up. In August 2018 I became Chief Executive.
What does a typical day look like for you?
No such thing as a typical day, which is why it’s such an exciting job. One meeting could be about waste management and another meeting about child protection, another about planning. I like to be visible and not stuck in the office, being out and about meeting as many employers and members of the community as I can. We’ve got a very large number of volunteers across Midlothian, we’ve got really strong partnership links and an amazing history of working with the NHS, police, fire rescue, the voluntary sector, a whole range of organisations.
What has your involvement been with DDI and the City Region Deal and in relation to digital skills and education?
When I was Head of Education, I was involved in the planning stages of the City Region Deal. In Midlothian, we are building a new secondary school and we are seeing a lot of growth so we want to build new early years centres, primary and secondary schools. We also wanted to create a centre of excellence for digital skills in the new high school that we were building in our most deprived community, Mayfield. We were very keen that this was based in the most deprived area for a very good reason as we particularly wanted to address the gender gap that exists in both digital but also in STEM subjects more widely.
In addition to that, we also know that it’s really hard to recruit and retain teachers in Scotland so we wanted to create something really exciting that would be a magnet to attract the very best teachers to come into the profession.
So that was what my first involvement with the City Region Deal and we’re very pleased to open the Digital Centre of Excellence and the new Newbattle High School in June 2018 last year and I have to say the relationship with the university has been outstanding because without that link through the DDI work stream and through Professor Judy Robertson’s work that would never have come to fruition. The university trained all of the Newbattle staff, including staff who maybe only use the computer to access emails, and they were getting really advanced training. That worked really well and I’m pleased to say that the school, which used to have a high number of exclusions, have got single figure exclusions now just as a result will have a more engaging curriculum.
You’ll be pleased to know Judy Robertson is actually one of the supervisors of the Women in Data project!
Children are designing their learning and designing the technology that they’re actually using and the school are now talking about things like having drone classes with computer programmes and virtual headsets. It’s a really exciting place to be in that wouldn’t have been possible without the links to DDI and Judy’s incredible work.
It’s also really important that we model this – when we were first talking about the idea of a Centre of Excellence people didn’t know what we meant. Now we’re getting lots of visits, people can actually see what we mean by this. It’s important that we have people who are frontrunners.
What are your views on women and girls in data and digital skills education?
My aspiration is that there is no gender divide and we know that is not the case currently but we’re making a point of making sure that everything we are offering is absolutely open to everybody so there is no bias involved.
What we’re beginning to see just through that approach, and we’ve done a lot of this through different approaches in early years and P1 and P2 education, that this becomes the norm and I think we need to get better at that – not having that gender divide in anything we do. We have a phrase in Midlothian that’s called ‘one size fits one’ approach. If someone is particularly interested in something or got a talent, we want to support them to pursue that regardless of background, gender, all of these other factors that people in the past would see as a barrier. This does take a lot of educating – professionals, parents, family members and so on, so it’s going to be a long journey but we are seeing a good uptake of digital skills education so we hope in the future that there wouldn’t be a gender divide.
In terms of the work that you’re doing at the moment, is there anything that you wish you could do more of?
I believe in people’s potential to do anything they dream they want to do. We sometimes close people’s ambitions off in Scotland, I have to say, and I think it’s really important particularly for female leaders to be championing people’s potential. Women sometimes don’t feel confident to move forward with something but actually they’re really really able but don’t have that confidence factor. A lot of that is about modelling, coaching, mentoring. As I become a more experienced Chief Executive, I want to do more of that kind of thing.
Fantastic! What are your hopes for the City Region Deal?
It has the power to transform. We need a high skills set, not just at the universities but across the city, in businesses and in the innovation centres. As a public sector employee, I can see we’re a little behind with that and we need to tap in to everyone’s skills. It has the potential to transform the private and public sector. In consideration of the budget constraints whichs we’re under, technology innovation is key to us surviving that and transforming the way we work. We need a bigger workforce for services like care – can we automate some things so that we can train people up for the things we really need people to do?
So do you feel supported in your work as a woman? We don’t see many women Chief Executives.
In Scotland, women are 50% of the local government Chief Executives so we have seen lots of senior roles filled by women, which is wonderful.
I’m the first woman Chief Executive of Midlothian – and I have to say I have felt very supported. I have been lucky to be promoted to senior roles at quite young ages throughout my career and I think that’s been a good role model to other people, to show it’s possible as a young female to be promoted particularly within roles that are traditionally male roles in Scotland.
It’s also good that I’ve been promoted in to those roles without having the traditional background, for example maths, science or being an accountant. I’ve had a creative background and still progressed. Moving forward, we need more creative and innovative thinkers for innovative solutions rather than traditional ones.
What would you recommend to women and girls who would like to be in your position?
Get your qualifications – so I did a Masters, for example, in management. I wanted a management post so made sure I really well qualified for it. I also did a PhD when I was a headteacher. Be absolutely committed to your continuing professional development and ensure your skill set is always cutting edge. I think that’s hard for females because you balance a lot of things in and outside of work. I really value ongoing education, it’s absolutely critical and I can’t underestimate the positive impact that’s had for me.
What was your PhD on out of interest?
The impact of new public management at the University of Edinburgh Business School.
Would you like to add a fun fact about yourself we’d love to hear it!
(laughs) My main instruments are flute and piano – classically trained.
What was the biggest achievement in relation to music?
Gaining my music degree from Edinburgh. Only a few people at that time graduated with a Bachelors of music with honours. I was very proud of that.
Throughout my career I have been promoted to posts at a young age….without a traditional background. We need more creative thinkers in leadership roles who can find innovative solutions