10 questions with… Fhiona Mackay

Tes Scotland sits down with Fhiona Mackay to talk languages, legacies and Laurie Lee
12th February 2021, 12:00am
10 Questions With… Fhiona Mackay
Henry Hepburn


10 questions with… Fhiona Mackay


Fhiona Mackay is director of SCILT, Scotland's National Centre for Languages, where she has been working since 2012. Before that she was a principal teacher of modern languages, who became a passionate advocate not only of her subjects but also for the life-changing benefits of school trips.

She talks to Tes Scotland about why she thinks she has the best job in the country - and why pupils must be shown that languages are so much more than subjects on a school timetable.

1. Who has been your most memorable teacher?

My teacher for sixth-year French, Mrs Moyra Davenport, was really inspirational. She was young, dead glamorous - we all thought she looked like a film star or like Kate Bush - really kind and supportive, and she loved languages. She was like a breath of fresh air.

The other one was Mr George Young, my Higher history teacher. He was a polymath - he was so clever, so well read, erudite, but he could also engage with youngsters. His intellect really astounded me. 

He made me challenge a lot of the ideas that are associated with living in a small town. Before interdisciplinary learning was ever a thing, Mr Young, when we were learning about the Spanish Civil War, made us read Homage to Catalonia [by George Orwell] and Laurie Lee. We studied the Russian revolution and watched Battleship Potemkin. He probably developed my political literacy as well: it was the 1980s, there was CND, the situation in South Africa, and he would talk about these issues and get us to debate and think about them. He opened my eyes.

2. What were the best and worst things about your time at school?

School trips were the best thing. I would go to France regularly - Paris, Normandy, Brittany - with the school and it really gave me a love of French and a confidence to be able to speak it to real people. It was much more than just going on a 24-hour bus journey to get away from your parents. It really showed me that language wasn't about the context of an exam or textbook but a means of communication with real people. I also always really loved the food in France - I was probably the only one in the group who did - and would eat things like quail, which I remember being served one night.

Maths, for me, was by far the worst thing about school - I left school well qualified but with no maths qualification whatsoever. I think I may have an undiagnosed barrier which would be dealt with differently nowadays. It meant that I couldn't be a primary teacher, so it had quite a significant influence on my life - with a maths qualification, I would have probably gone into primary rather than secondary teaching.

But the absolute worst thing about school was the cruelty of some teachers. Not necessarily to me - because I was perceived as an academic success and probably managed to get away with a bit more - but the belt was still in place and was used a lot. I remember people being belted for speaking in Scots. Some teachers ruled by fear and schools were quite fearful places; if you didn't fit the mould, or couldn't play the game, or couldn't shine in sport or academia, then it could be a miserable place. I often think that when that belt was taken away from them, some teachers must have felt like they'd had their hands chopped off.

I remember, after the Munn and Dunning report [a landmark in attempts to bring about equality of access to education] had been published, hearing one of our teachers talk about how horrified she was that she was actually going to have to try and make an academic success of youngsters who just weren't capable of it. "I'm going to be expected to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," she said. 

I remember the injustice of that bristling with me as a 16-year-old. At that time, a lot of children were basically put out to grass after second year and would leave as soon as they possibly could, with no real qualifications and nothing that would have inspired them to something better.

3. Why do you work in education?

Because I want to change the world for the better for youngsters, not to keep everything the same as it was. 

When I was a young probationary teacher, a deputy head, who was quite a maverick, gave me a book called Teaching as a Subversive Activity [by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, 1969] and it made me think about being student-centred - about getting youngsters to think and question rather than just being taught at - and the ramifications for society of having a generation of youngsters who could think for themselves, question and challenge the world round about them, and take charge of their learning. That's really powerful stuff. The seven most dangerous words really are "that's how we have always done it".

4. What are you most proud of in your career and what's your biggest regret?

I'm really proud of all the opportunities that, as a teacher, I created with school trips - to France, to China, to Italy - to help Scottish youngsters see that there's a big wide world that is their birthright as much as it is anybody else's.

But the thing I'm proudest of is a scholarship I set up with Tianjin in China - the only one of its kind in Europe - that takes a group of 22 school leavers over every year (obviously not this year). They live on an international campus in a university and it's life-changing - they come back as different people, and very confident, if not fluent, in Chinese. What I'm particularly proud about is that it's fully funded by our partners in Tianjin, so even youngsters who come from areas of quite significant deprivation can take part.

I try not to have regrets - it's probably a waste of time and energy. I really believe when things don't work out that it's part of the learning process. When I first moved away from working in a school, I really didn't like it at first but then things transformed, and now I think I've got the best job in Scotland because I think I can make a difference to the languages community and to young people - showing them that languages are not just a school subject but something that can be transformational in their life.

5. Who would be your colleagues in your perfect school staffroom?

There's no such thing. What you'd want to have would be the perfectly reflective teacher, who would know his or her strengths and areas for development. I'd want people who were reflective, switched on - empowered teachers who really want to make a difference and who will work collaboratively and collegiately to achieve that.

6. What are the best and worst aspects of our education system?

I would like to say that our schools are now inclusive and cruelty free. I know that not everyone has a great experience but that kind of institutional cruelty, misogyny and lack of interest in children who are perceived not to be academic - that culture is no longer acceptable in our schools, and that is a great thing.

The worst aspect is teaching to the test - that still happens and it is the thing I would like to change the most. I understand why teachers do it - exam results are important - but I still think we see too much teaching to the test and rote learning. I'd really like to get rid of that and have a truly creative, enjoyable and challenging experience for youngsters. It's less of an issue in primary schools, but the pressure
of SQA qualifications creates it in secondary schools.

7. Your own teachers aside, who in education has influenced you the most?

I've got a couple of mentors, who know who they are and have been a huge influence and help; leadership can be quite a lonely place and you need sounding boards. They have wisdom and experience - sometimes negotiating the corridors of power is not an easy thing to do - and are people I can trust. There was also a former headteacher in my last school: Seamus Black, who was at Douglas Academy in East Dunbartonshire. He has since died, long before his time. He taught me the importance of kindness and humility in leadership, and I miss him terribly.

An educationalist and languages teacher who has had an influence is Avis Glaze [a member of Scotland's International Council of Education Advisers], who talks about how we should be advocates for young people, and of the importance of social justice and a moral compass in our leadership. Hearing her talk at the Scottish Learning Festival about being a poor black girl in a white school, and how the care and influence of one teacher transformed that experience for her, reduced me to tears. She also said that Scotland's 1+2 languages policy [promoting the learning of two additional languages in primary school] was an important component of any 21st-century curriculum.

8. If you became education secretary tomorrow, what would you do first?

I would do everything in my power to keep the teaching profession safe right now. In terms of languages, I would want to keep on protecting them as an intrinsic part of the curriculum. Their place in the curriculum is still fragile - 1+2 means that we've come a long way but there's still much to be done. I would extend support for 1+2 to make sure that it has a legacy.

9. What will our schools be like in 30 years?

If a Victorian got in a time machine to look at a modern classroom, it would still be pretty recognisable - a teacher's desk, pupils' desks, sometimes still in rows - whereas if you took them into a dentist's surgery, it would look completely different. But I think the pandemic will change things, particularly in terms of blended learning and use of technology - there will be an awful lot more of that in our classrooms of the future. But technology is only important and exciting if it enhances really good pedagogy, and approaches to learning and teaching. Giving youngsters 100 apps to work on will never take the place of a really good, sound teacher who is empathetic, builds relationships and really cares about them.

10. Which one person has made the biggest difference to schools in the past year?

It's not one person, it's the teaching profession and all the other professions that go into our schools: auxiliary, administrative and janitorial staff, social workers. All these people working together is what's made the biggest difference. They are heroes. Most key workers have been able to have, at least to some extent, proper personal protective equipment (PPE) - for teachers, their PPE all too often has been an open window. They've kept our schools open and kept our youngsters learning despite real, significant risks to their health. It's not been one person, it's been everyone. 

Interview by Henry Hepburn, news editor at Tes Scotland

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