Colin Russell

The recently retired Scottish primary head and chair of Belmas, the British educational leadership and educational research society, talks about 'pracademics', the plan to make teaching a master's-level profession and how Scottish education could be improved. Interview by Emma Seith Photography by Colin Hattersley

Tell us about Belmas - what does the organisation do?

Belmas is - as it says on the tin - about leadership, management and administration. It's about creating systems that will help to improve practice in schools. There are two main arms to that: research and practice. The research arm has dominated so much of Belmas' history that 10 years ago there was disquiet among council members because everybody in the room was a professor of education. This meant that the practitioner part was not really there. A big marker of the turnaround was that they were prepared to have me - a practising headteacher - as chair. The previous incumbent, Dr Megan Crawford, got me involved. The intention was that I would come in and try to help redress the balance. The point about Belmas was that it was for people not from one side or the other, but who were educationalists. I came up with the word "pracademic" to summarise this. The success of that has been impressive because we have redressed the balance in membership and it has gone up from about 400 to 1,000 in the past three years.

Why is it important to have practitioners and academics represented?

When you are building education systems, it's important to have everyone on board so that everyone is immersed in the pursuit of quality educational provision, as opposed to people coming from vested-interest positions.

So is Belmas for classroom teachers?

It's for people of all levels with experience - academics, heads, teachers, but also local government officials and politicians.

Would you say that teachers are guilty of not taking into account what is proved to work in the classroom?

In my experience, no, I don't think that is true. In most staffrooms, there is still a level of discourse about education.

What do you think of the Scottish government's plan to make teaching a master's-level profession?

You can't go straight into it (a master's) as a new teacher - which is the way it's going. It should have been like chartered teachers. You had to have a certain amount of experience, as opposed to being wet behind the ears and still in a learning phase. I was one of the few fans of chartered teacher status. Where it went wrong was that they did not tie in the requirement to give something back to the school.

You had four chartered teachers in the school?

We had four chartered teachers and then when that started to go out the window, we had four master's students. My old depute, Rehana Shanks, is doing a PhD now and I have a PhD.

How did so many people become involved in additional study?

We made it happen by a simple device - we offered teachers a study group and almost all the teaching staff came along. Because of that group, they became interested and it fostered ambition in a lot of people.

What made you personally interested in further study?

It's my nature. I always wanted to go where my limits were.

What was your PhD about?

It was an examination of the philosophical principles that HMIE was using subconsciously. HMIE was not very clear about the rationale in inspection. When you analysed its judgements and the categories it used, there were patterns that you could discern. The inspectorate valued certain things - if a school provided a breadth of experience, if it provided pupil responsibility, if it encouraged teacher autonomy. How Good is our School? was very close to the categories I identified.

Why choose that topic?

I was interested in the publication of inspection reports because previously they were for the local authority and the headteacher only. I would personally go back to that. It might sound undemocratic but that policy disproportionately hits heads in small towns. If they get a bad report, that goes on the front page of the local newspaper with a picture of them. In recent years, though, things have swung the other way and inspectors are treading so warily now that the reports are not actually worth anything.

How else could we improve Scottish education?

I would remove freedom of choice - it's been a disaster. Children should attend the school in their local area.

You retired in February. How is retirement treating you?

I have had some health issues, but now I'm looking forward to the publication of my book in February. It's called Princes of the Scottish Enlightenment, 1688-1832.


Born: Peebles, 1948

Education: Jedburgh Grammar and Hawick High, the Borders; BEd and MEd, University of Edinburgh; PhD, Open University

Career: Teaching career began at Stirches Primary in Hawick in 1979. Assistant head, Eyemouth Primary; head of Burnmouth Primary; head of Swinton Primary, all in the Borders; Head of Gorebridge Primary, Midlothian; retired in February as head of Dean Park Primary, Edinburgh.

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