Acts fast and leads from the front

15th February 2008 at 00:00
Former PE teacher Tim McKay is a dynamic head who has just moved from a secondary school with 80 pupils to one with 1,200.

When headteacher Tim McKay's son started at his father's school, the building wasn't big enough for both of them.

As an eight-year-old, Jack had looked forward to going to his dad's school, because they'd be able to have lunch together every day. But when young Jack arrived at Alford Academy in rural Aberdeenshire, it was a different story.

"When he got into first year just before I left, it was 'Don't speak to me if you see me in the corridor'," the 45-year-old head laughs.

Tim McKay is now head of Ellon Academy, 40 miles away, leaving Jack in peace to have lunch with his pals. For both of them, the first term at a new school has been a time of transition. And for Dad, moving to a school with double the number of pupils on the roll, there have been significant adjustments.

Sitting in his school office, just a few miles from Donald Trump's proposed new golfing development at Balmedie, Mr McKay reflects on some of the leadership challenges he faces as the head of a much bigger school.

At his old school, the first staff meeting was in front of an audience of 80. At Ellon, with more than 1,200 pupils, he found himself addressing more than 250 people.

"There were teaching and support staff, auxiliary workers and janitorial staff, community learning and development staff. So it's quite a different style of delivery when you are talking to a group of that size," says the former PE teacher.

He also believes the communication strategy must be two-way: "I think the most important thing to do is listen to your staff and listen to your parents and, most importantly, listen to the youngsters themselves. That's the key to making sure you can develop positive relationships, so you can take forward an agenda, whatever that agenda might be."

Another obvious challenge for the newcomer is simply getting to know the pupils when there are so many of them. Ellon Academy was even bigger in the past, with a more extensive rural catchment area. Since the opening of Meldrum Academy a few miles away, the Ellon roll has dropped from 1,650 and is more of a town school.

Mr McKay has worked his way through the ranks at a variety of schools, following his first promoted post as principal teacher of guidance at St Machar Academy in Aberdeen. In his early career, he found supporting youngsters from poorer backgrounds one of the most rewarding aspects of his job.

He experienced personal loss as a teenager and has great empathy with children confronting painful situations. His adoptive parents split when he was 12 and three years later his mother died. Understandably, his academic performance was less than brilliant during these years. "It was quite challenging. I was cleaning windows trying to earn money because we were quite hard up."

He doesn't think of his childhood as difficult, but recognises it was probably colourful compared to the average Scottish headteacher. "Character-forming I think is the word," he smiles.

After managing one Higher in fifth year, the Aberdeen Grammar School pupil managed to turn things around the following year, with enough passes for entry to train as a PE teacher on the BEd course at Jordanhill, run jointly with Strathclyde University.

Twenty five years on, and he shares his early academic short-comings with struggling pupils in the hope of reassuring them that it can be done, against the odds. "It's a very important part of my job to be honest with youngsters, and I often have assembly topics based around my own life experiences. I think that's quite important and I think the kids value that - they always find it quite a laugh when I talk about my school report," he adds.

He will also talk to senior pupils about being adopted, as part of their personal and social education programme next term.

"I am a very open person and I believe in speaking to the kids about anything," he says. "There are no holds barred and I think that's important because they see you as a real person. I say to the kids when I speak about it: 'If I get upset, you will just have to accept that I am getting upset.'"

Ellon Academy has a special educational needs base as large as some special schools. There is a unit for autism, a hearing impairment base and youngsters with a range of difficulties require additional support.

"Youngsters with severe and profound difficulties, who at one time might have been quite excluded in society, are seen as the normal part of the school community," Mr McKay explains.

"We are a centre of excellence in terms of providing opportunities for every youngster in the community, and outwith the community we attract people into the area because of the specialist services we provide."

The school fares well academically and also provides a range of options for pupils with learning difficulties: "One of the things the staff and I are very proud of is the fact that we have high attainment for our youngsters with very great difficulties," Tim McKay says.

He's keen on devolving decision-making to staff and students, with several non-promoted staff chairing school committees and pupils leading projects in the community.

"My leadership style is that I am definitely action-focused. I like things to happen, I am not a great fan of meetings for meetings' sake. I like a meeting to be short and outcome focused and action taken as a result."

Not surprisingly, his new colleagues see him as "the man in a hurry", dynamic and decisive, someone who acts fast and leads from the front.

"I just hope we can all keep up," one teacher said.

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