Lorraine Stobie

The headteacher of Southcraig School in Ayr and winner of the lifetime achievement prize at the Scottish Education Awards 2012 is credited with `dragging special education out of the cupboard' Interview by Henry Hepburn Photography David Gordon

Henry Hepburn

How would you describe your place of work?

It's a school for 80 children aged 2-19 with complex additional needs.

Have attitudes to children with additional needs changed much over your career?

Yes, but we need to raise awareness about the entitlements of children with additional support needs to have opportunities within their communities. Most of our children don't live here - they come from all over South Ayrshire.

Do you still encounter resistance to the idea of inclusion?

Yes. I think people still feel unable to manage children with complex needs. That's the point of awareness-raising: that children and young people are recognised more for their strengths than the things they are unable to do.

Margo Williamson, South Ayrshire's head of curriculum and service improvement, said you had `dragged special education out of the cupboard'. What is the most crucial change you've had a bearing on?

I think in raising awareness that children should get the opportunities and experiences they deserve.

You were described as an outstanding leader at the Scottish Education Awards. What is the most important characteristic of a leader?

Leading from the front and being prepared to do anything that you ask any members of staff to do.

You regularly involve parents in the running of your school. Why does this matter?

Parents know their children better than anyone else. They also know what their aspirations are for them, and it is important that we work alongside them to try to achieve that.

You began your career as a nursery nurse. Are you encouraged by the national emphasis on the early years?

Yes. Early intervention is key to making a difference, particularly in special education. When a diagnosis is first made, there can be eight or nine professionals involved. It's a big relief for parents that all of those services link with the school.

You've worked in the same place for most of your career. Were you ever tempted to move?

There is something new and challenging every day here. I might have been in the same community, but the job certainly isn't the same. The biggest change is the recognition that children and young people with complex needs now have good learning experiences - it's not just about caring for them.

What makes work in your sector so fulfilling?

Breakthroughs like someone being able to hold their head up for five seconds longer than they used to. If you can do that you can give eye contact, and that's the first step towards communication; it also means you can open your mouth and take a spoonful of food. For a child with complex needs that's absolutely huge.

Your nomination form for the education awards noted that you read widely. How important is this, and what do you read?

It is absolutely key to read widely if you work in the special education sector. In the past, mainstream schools had 5-14 but that didn't fit our pupils' needs - there used to be no guidance for us to follow, so I had to read. I read medical journals, and the internet is a godsend.

You have been praised for medical knowledge that one parent - a doctor - said was better than that of medical specialists. How did you acquire this?

It's about first-hand experience and learning from specialists you work with; and knowing what children and young people are like on a usual day and being very tuned in to any changes.

You have had to deal with the deaths of many children. What is the most important thing to bear in mind?

That everyone deals with death in their own way, and to be guided by what families want - it's showing respect and giving families the support they want.

One parent described you as having `calm and inner peace'. How do you achieve this?

I think it's down to experience. And I have always been very fortunate that my home life is settled.

Judges noted that the word `love' is used a lot in the school. Should schools be more comfortable with the idea of love between pupils and staff?

I think so, as long as you're aware of not stepping over boundaries. Many of our children come here at 2 and are still here at 19. You do become close to children and their families. To show a bit of compassion and love can make children feel confident with the people working with them.

What is the best memory of your career?

Years ago we were the first school in Scotland to introduce the Move (Mobility Opportunities Via Education) programme. To see children we never thought would be able to take steps, being able to do it with the support of an aid - you can see by their faces that they feel in control and that it's something they probably didn't think they would be able to do.

How did you feel when depute head Claire McKenzie said you were `to vulnerable children what Mother Teresa was to street children in Calcutta'?

That's the first time I have heard that. I'm speechless. I don't have children, but I have treated the children at school like I would have wanted my own to be treated.


Born: Ayr, 1956

Education: Newton Park Primary and Belmont Academy, both Ayr; Kilmarnock College, Scottish nursery nurses qualification; Langside College, certificate in education and care of children with profound difficulties

Career: Nursery nurse at Wallacetown Nursery, Ayr; instructor at Craigpark School, going on to become headteacher; now headteacher at Southcraig School in Ayr, formed by the merger of Craigpark and Southpark schools.

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

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