4th October 2017

Leslie Evans', Permanent Secretary for Scotland, address to Y12

Leslie Evans, alumnae from 1970-76, is the top Civil Servant in Scotland, working directly under Nicola Sturgeon. On Monday 2nd October she returned to the school along with 10 other alumni, to speak with our Y12 pupils about careers. She has kindly sent over her notes from her Key Note talk. 


Very conscious talking to Generation X – my son - slightly older - is therefore a Millennial. He sent me a tweet recently about a new version of the board game Monopoly, called Mill-ennial Monopoly. You go round the board only ever renting properties because Millennial will never be able to afford to buy a house. Harsh but probably true… 

Reminder that I am looking back to almost mythical time – my time here spanned 1970 – 76 - positively the dark ages. Reflecting on that and life since then – so will talk about 3 things

  1. My experience here - how it shaped me and what I learnt
  2. My career choices since then
  3. And as I describe these I shall highlight 6 learning points - and finish with 3 short pieces of advice – things wish I’d known at your age (though would I have listened?...)

My experience here - how it shaped me

Some of you will know LP Hartley’s The Go Between and the famous quote ‘The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there '

When I joined High Storrs it had only just become a comprehensive school. No pcs or mobile phones of course. Calculators viewed with suspicion. We all stood up whenever a teacher entered the room. Strict uniform code – measure length of skirt above your knee. Some school practices were just plain bonkers. Still had corporal punishment during my time… Girl who got pregnant aged 13 just disappeared – never mentioned. (Nor was sexuality– knew some of our pals were gay but never acknowledged by the school.) Smoking room – could use if parents gave written permission.

Positive memories? Fantastic friendships and great fun. Memorable teachers - dedicated, skilled and held real ambition for us. They pushed us. Believed in us – all of us. Emphasis on all because Sheffield City Council education policy meant this was a multi-cultural and inclusive school – kids from poorest parts of city mixing with richest. We had young people with partial hearing, some with real learning difficulties, young people living with impact of Thalidomide. Highly inclusive – to a naive 11 year old from Nether Green Primary both an eye opener and a great leveller. Looking back now - see incredibly brave - revolutionary - public policy in action. But also a failure to lay the ground and to anticipate risks associated with such big upheaval and social change. Vividly recall teacher running down corridor holding billowing gown in one hand and a trainer in right hand – in pursuit of a guy sprinting clean away into distance...

1ST LEARNING POINT – this experience undoubtedly shaped my own politics and values, and my views about diversity, equality and inclusion. I learnt to appreciate that others’ experiences of life were very different from my own. I developed the ability to put myself in other’s shoes – and to understand that things can feel, can seem and often are quite different there. Still use that capacity in my job today.

So learnt a lot - and absorbed lot of knowledge – some still resonates. Music remains important - still have soft spot David Bowie, still like reggae and dub, Bach + Bartok. Still reread Jane Austen, and go to see Shakespeare regularly. Learnt to like poetry – Sylvia Plath, Jackie Kay, John Donne. My love of history and my fascination with politics is rooted in what I learned here. And my gender politics too - my feminism – and I am a feminist - dates back to learning about Elizabeth 1st’s speech at Tilbury (‘I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king’). And it wasn’t just not just knowledge I absorbed – here is where I first learnt to ask not just what or why? But - really?

2ND LEARNING POINT– I cultivated skills and capacities here which I apply everyday – the propensity to be curious, the ability to analyse, the desire to inform my opinion, the appetite to question everything.

Some not so positive memories? Some teachers better not remembered nor named. The school role was 2000 - knew only 1 person when started apart from 2 brothers who didn’t acknowledge me. Did 4A – doing 8 O levels in one year – meant pressure. I simply didn’t work hard enough in 6th form - did a lot of partying so mucked up A levels. My results poor – went home and cried.

3RD LEARNING POINT? How to take it on the chin – my poor A level results were my fault – so had to live with it. Brought home to me the importance of hard work yes – but also made me consider what really motivates me. Don’t think I really experienced the satisfaction that hard work brings till I got a job where I felt I was making a difference. At school I often found myself thinking - ‘why am I doing this – what difference will it make?’

My career

Despite results had secured a place at Liverpool– respectable red brick university.

Decided early on not good enough or dedicated enough to be professional performer. And in those days classical musicians were quite boring –they were a-political and a bit smug. So used musical skills to earn cash – in orchestra pit and teaching piano - and used Music degree as means to end, getting onto a post graduate course in London to get into arts administration. Part of the course was a secondment - and I worked really hard - made myself indispensable and proved myself totally dependable. They offered me my first job. Went onto work in arts in local authorities in London, Sheffield, Edinburgh and Stirling. Each time I climbed management ladder – role and responsibilities got broader and more diverse and further from my comfort zone – when I took up my job in Edinburgh I knew no one there - but didn’t skip a beat – accepted it all.

4TH LEARNING POINT - grab every opportunity you are offered and let your enthusiasm speak first. Say yes - and think about whether and how you can do it later. And learn how to feign confidence – fake it until you make it.

Took decision to join CS in 2000 soon after devolution - new Parliament and Government. Represented a big career change in my 40s – so a big risk. I had considerable experience in public service by that time – so how different could Gov be? How wrong I was – miserable because I didn’t seem to add value, make any difference. In fact my time in LG was exactly what the CS in Scotland needed at that point - front line experience of delivering to the public - but I had to work that out - meant 9 months of feeling fish out of water.

5TH LEARNING POINT – hold your nerve, hone your Unique Selling Point - what makes you different - and stay resilient.

Now Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government - most senior civil servant in Scotland. My job is to lead thousands of civil servants, working to improve the lives of people in Scotland. Devolution means I work for SG not UKG. So I don’t work for Theresa May’s Government, I work directly for Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland – some of you may have heard of her.

Most Permanent Secretaries are male and the product of private schooling and the Oxbridge system. You might have noticed I’m none of these things. In fact I am only the 30th female Perm Sec in whole history of the UKCS and the first female Perm Sec in Scotland has ever seen. I chose to combine motherhood and a career at time when maternity leave was almost non-existent, and when my husband - who works in music industry – was away on long international tours with rock bands. We took turn and turnabout in our careers. I worked and looked after family while he toured the world. Then he stayed at home to look after me when I got this job. He has only just started to go out on tour again, just returned from Radiohead world tour - in fact you might prefer hear some of his stories...

6TH LEARNING POINT Don’t let anyone or anything constrain or dictate your ambition or aspirations. That might mean creating unconventional solutions or arrangements to overcome apparent barriers. But also means choosing your partner wisely. Need a shared and realistic understanding of what each of your careers entails – and how you can best support each other.

Finally what did I wish I had known when I was here?

  1. Wish I had known that you don’t need to take a traditional or narrow route to succeed and reach the top of your field or profession. Don’t need a career plan but do need to know what stimulates, stretches and satisfies you. You - particularly your generation – will be a long time working – need to enjoy it. Worked in Bachelors mushy pea factory for summer - full of people who hated what they did – salient lesson.
  2. Wish I had known importance of transferable skills and personal qualities – qualifications, knowledge and technical capacity are important - but they only take you so far. Success is much more about you – your attributes and qualities. That means being able to work with other people – be part of a team. Means being prepared to make mistakes – because you will – but also to learn from them. And means being able to seek and act on feedback – choosing someone who is on your side, acts as your champion but who can hold up the mirror, with honesty. Personal qualities really count – I meet many very powerful and successful people in my job. The most impressive amongst these are those rich in resilience (looking after themselves and their energy levels) tenacity (staying the course, focused on what really matters), humility (remembering both their own roots and flaws) and – most often - those who treat people with humanity and kindness.
  3. Finally, when I was here people kept telling me that schooldays are best days of your life. They aren’t - or if they are, something has gone badly wrong. Schooldays are important. Of course they are. But don’t let them define you. Instead, use your time here to get to know yourself, to test yourself and to shape yourself. This is the time to be brave, be bold and be curious. And in so doing to find out what is important to you, to develop your voice and your values, and to start to define your contribution to making the world a better place. For that is what we are all really here to do.

So remember this is just the beginning – you have more time, more choices and more opportunities than you think. I wish you well!