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A rare bird in the West

John Clark talks to Brian Cooklin, an outspoken Tory who has put his politics on the back burner to become a secondary headteacher.

The new headteacher of Stonelaw High in Rutherglen took over on April Fool's Day, but denies that there's any significance in the date.

What is remarkable in Labour-dominated West of Scotland is that the new head, Brian Cooklin, is a prominent and outspoken Conservative. Mr Cooklin, aged 42, fought three general elections and the European election two years ago as a Tory candidate but has been critical of Government education policy.

He said: "I think it's important as a practitioner that you keep people in government informed about the practical effects of their reforms. It's one thing to legislate, it's another to implement."

Following a warning from his wife that their children, a boy aged six and a girl of 10 would forget what their father looked like because he was out all the time, Mr Cooklin has put politics on the back burner for a while.

"I'm not on any party committees at the moment and am not a candidate, " he said, sitting in his office which contains an impressive haul of silverware won by pupils.

Two years ago he warned the Scottish Tory party conference about the pace of education reform.

"I wanted to draw attention to the practical effects of the reforms and legislation. I did call for a moratorium on change.

"I thought it would be beneficial to allow some of the reforms time to bed down and become established, though I'm not in any way criticising the principle behind many of them because I agree with them.

"I think 5-14 reforms and national testing go hand in hand in schools. It's important we have national testing in order to achieve a standard across Scotland."

Stonelaw High is a Victorian red sandstone building with an annexe. The split site means many of its 1,200 pupils have to negotiate traffic between classes up to six times a day.

Last week's return to school provoked unwelcome headlines in the local newspaper, The Reformer. Under the front-page headline "Troublesome times of Stonelaw pupils" it reported that pupils were "causing havoc" at lunch times and intervals as they "loiter around the streets". Cars outside a garage were damaged and pupils were accused of causing disturbances at a shopping arcade.

A spokeswoman for the garage commented that she wished that the new Stonelaw High under construction could be finished quicker.

The new school in Calderwood Road is due for completion in June 1998. Brian Cooklin is confident it will increase the safety and security of pupils. A community wing will include a stage, cafe, games hall, two gyms and a fitness studio.

He says Rutherglen has a very strong sense of community and many people felt the Royal Burgh lost something of its identity when under local government reorganisation it came within Glasgow's ambit.

Mr Cooklin was one of the last secondary heads to be appointed by the former Strathclyde Region. He has spent the past 17 years at Stonelaw High, progressing from assistant principal of English to assistant head, deputy head and then headteacher. He says staffroom bookies wouldn't have given odds on him reaching his present position given his politics.

"As far as my politics are concerned I have always been plain and above board. Everyone knows. I think I have my colleagues' respect just as I respect them.

"I don't think staff's political views should be allowed to colour their teaching."

One colleague is a Labour councillor who attends council meetings three afternoons a week.

He admits that it was a "popular rumour" that a teacher's chances of promotion were better in the West of Scotland if he or she was a known Labour supporter.

"To be fair, my experience of all interview procedures both in Strathclyde and South Lanarkshire is that they have been open and above board and transparently honest. I think it's a popular myth and an excuse by some people to say the reason they didn't get the job was because 'my face doesn't fit'."

However a senior education official when asked who was appointed headteacher of Stonelaw High is said to have remarked: "That Tory b.... got it."

Brian Cooklin remarked: "I have been insulted by experts. If you are active in politics you learn to develop a fairly tough skin about these things."

He characterises his management style as a team approach. "I'm very lucky in having a very good team of senior management which work well together with complementary skills.

"My leadership style is high profile and participative. I hope it's fairly clear I haven't lost sight of my key role as a teacher. I didn't plan to become a manager when I came into teaching."

He said after our interview he would be taking an English class for a colleague who was attending a Higher Still seminar.

He does not agree with streaming but was in favour of setting which "gives the individual the chance to develop their full potential. I think if you are talking about selection that runs counter to that feeling people have of being part of the community."

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