A woman to be reckoned with

5th June 2009 at 01:00

Judith McClure, headteacher at St George's School in Edinburgh, retires this summer. Those of us who have had the privilege of working with her know that her retiral will mark a huge loss for Scottish education.

I first met Judith (although I had known of her and heard her speak) some four years ago when my school was introducing the early education and childcare course. I was told that another Edinburgh school, St George's, had been presenting pupils for a year. I put my wariness about the private sector aside (and have seldom been so pleased at the outcome of an out-of- character instinct) and approached Judith to see if we could share expertise and resources. She responded enthusiastically and started a connection which led to our schools being given an SQA award for partnership.

Judith has a passion for supporting young people and creating and improving opportunities for all of them. She has promoted links across the city and across the world and was one of the pioneers of teaching Mandarin in Scottish schools.

She also played a major role in developing leadership in schools. She sat on the national working group on the Standard for Headship and has been an inspiring chairperson of Selmas, the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society, where she applied her combination of intellectual ferocity, diplomacy, connections to a seemingly-infinite web of contacts, and ability to cut through bureaucracy.

Working with Judith in Selmas, I also saw her endless energy. She regularly performs the tasks of several workhorses put together (her staff are frequently out of breath, seeking to emulate her).

Her capacity to lead in Selmas and in her own school, however, is rooted firmly, not in theoretical models but in a personal modelling of inspiring leadership. She combines the ability to rise to the pedestal, yet to retain enormous human warmth and sensitivity, to be utterly reliable and, while being an impressive strategic thinker, retain an astonishing eye for detail.

When first I visited St George's and was given the tour of the school, I was brash enough to ask her why, almost alone among private sector heads, she regularly attended conferences and professional events otherwise largely attended by those from the comprehensive sector. Exhibiting her talent for knowing when a light touch is appropriate without ever losing sight of the serious, she replied: "Oh, you guys are far more collegial than we are. We're all in competition with each other. I enjoy working with you."

Those who value integrity and courage in educational leadership will wish Judith well in retirement, will trust that she enjoys a slightly less pressurised life but hope that her presence will continue, in whatever form, to influence Scottish schools and teaching.

For this robustly pro-comprehensive head, the lesson reinforced from working with Judith McClure was that tolerance is never enough. Serious professional leadership requires active engagement with whatever is good and admirable, wherever it may be found.

Alex Wood is seconded headteacher of Tynecastle High, Edinburgh.

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