A gentleman with a gentle touch

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Emma Seith talks to the new president of School Leaders Scotland about budgets, making headship more attractive and playing Santa

Colin Sutherland, head of North Berwick High, says his wife, Anne, married him because she saw his potential. Not to become a high-flyer, he jokes, but to make a convincing Father Christmas for the girl guide groups she leads in her spare time.

While he used to require a white wig to disguise a shock of red hair and padding to give him a rounded belly, the passage of time has rendered such props obsolete, he admits. "I'm a natural now," he says, laughing and patting his stomach.

Mr Sutherland has played the part of Santa for the past 30 years, he estimates. His latest role, however, is as president of School Leaders Scotland. Over the next year, given the tough economic climate, it is no surprise to hear him say that the big issue is going to be funding.

Initiatives such as smaller class sizes and free school meals in the early years, while laudable, should be scrapped for the time being, he says. "These are desirable, but not essential. What we need now is enough maths teachers and enough English teachers."

Ending ring fencing and introducing the concordat has been "a mistake" and has created a postcode lottery for pupils, he feels. "It is clear that some authorities are giving a higher percentage of their budget to schools. It should not matter which authority they are in, youngsters should have the same opportunity and equality of funding and access."

Recruitment and retention of senior staff is another concern, he says. Mr Sutherland is looking forward to working with the Scottish Government and the local authorities to find ways of making headship more attractive.

He will also be pushing for "intelligent accountability", adding: "Increasingly, the emphasis should be on schools evaluating themselves and other agencies validating that."

Taking the headteacher's post at North Berwick was a big decision for him, he admits, not least because it meant uprooting his family - Mr Sutherland has two sons, Ian and Alastair - and moving from the west of Scotland to the east. But they have never looked back.

Fellow heads say Mr Sutherland is a gentleman who will serve them well. Unlike some of the big hitters in the organisation, colleagues believe he will not operate by force of personality alone but will persuade and charm them.

Mr Sutherland was born in Glasgow but, when the tenements were cleared, the family moved to a new council house in Johnstone in Renfrewshire. He and his brother were the first generation to go to university but, without grants, they could not have done it, he says.

At university, Mr Sutherland studied geology and decided to enter teaching. He had discovered early on, thanks to leading bible classes at his local church, that he had "a knack for explaining things".

His bosses say he is doing an "exceptional job" at North Berwick, where he leads by example.

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