A view from the lifeboat

15th November 2002 at 00:00
After 34 years in teaching and 15 as rector, Andrew Livingstone decided to jump ship. Not because he was unhappy, but because he felt fulfilled.

IN August, I jumped ship and left my cruise liner for a very small lifeboat. To be exact I handed over the responsibility for my school, after being its captain for 15 years, and moved on to pastures new, doing a little work now where I feel I can make a difference.

My decision to leave was not based on disillusionment. Rather it was because I had experienced 15 extremely fulfilling and happy years as a rector, achieving a reasonable amount in the process, that I decided not to do a Margaret Thatcher and stay on beyond my sell-by date. Some, of course, felt I had already done that.

At the start of my 34 years in education, I saw education as being mainly the teaching of one's own particular discipline and all other matters relating to the support of the individual student as being of no concern to teachers. That was the parents' role.

In a similar way, while I was always involved in extracurricular activities in school, the part they played in the development of the whole person was certainly not at the forefront of my mind. Mathematics and imparting my love for the subject took precedence over everything else. Woe betide any student who asked out of my maths class for a concert rehearsal or to play hockey or rugby.

Today, as I experience the luxury of a coffee without the interruption of a bell ringing, is the moment to confess that these early opinions were wide of the mark and I came to realise the crucial importance of extracurricular activities in the development of the whole child and the desperate need for good guidance staff in an ever fragmenting society.

My personal philosophy also changed and I began to adopt and promote in my own school the view that to enable students to develop, mature and improve their academic standards, force of personality and narrow teaching by a head or his staff, no matter how excellent, would not be sufficient.

I came to the view that good relationships (in the best sense of the word) between staff, students and parents were the crucial ingredient in the cocktail. But what was the magic formula which would allow this mutual respect and trust to develop?

I came to believe that the role of management is often to set the tone and direction of a school, improve its facilities, personally encourage the staff and students to achieve and allow staff the freedom to get on with the task in hand. I am not saying I was always perfect in following such a strategy. Many lapses did occur, but it was always to the fore in many of the decisions made. When, for example, an extra favour was required by a teacher to fit in with family demands, it was always repaid tenfold. Staff and students both reaped the rewards.

I have little faith that measures such as target-setting or formal staff appraisal will raise academic standards or make schools happier places. If some schools or some staff members are failing, energy should be devoted to that problem without burdening others with bureaucratic procedures which cause much frustration and do little for the individual.

Teachers, I believe, are professional and the vast majority practise self-appraisal at all times. As regards professional development, they know what training they require without being told.

The resulting climate will produce young people with the qualities required for our modern society and academic standards will rise beyond our wildest expectations. That was certainly my experience.

Andrew Livingstone was rector of St Columba's, Kilmacolm, from 1987 until this year.

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