Heading for Westminster?

31st October 2008 at 00:00
Next Friday, staff and pupils at Kirkcaldy High will know whether Lindsay Roy will still be their headteacher or not. Elizabeth Buie reports

The rain is coming down in sheets, and the wind is gusting. It's cold and miserable and the streets are almost deserted.

Normally, Kirkcaldy High headteacher Lindsay Roy would have been relaxing indoors too this October school break. But, on the day The TESS stepped out with him as Labour's candidate in the Glenrothes by-election, he was pounding the streets of the former mining village of Kinglassie, on the outskirts of Glenrothes.

It is indeed a dreich day - an expression which has been adopted by some of the Labour Party workers drafted in to support Roy in his bid to win the by-election, although some of them from south of the Watford Gap can't quite pronounce the soft "ch" sound. Dreich or dreek.

The advance party has gone on ahead, ascertaining who's at home, whether they are likely to vote Labour or if they would like to raise a particular issue with their candidate. Target having been identified, Roy jogs up the garden path with an ease belying his 59 years - with yet another Cabinet minister in tow. Today, it is Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell; the day before it had been Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife, with media scrum in attendance.

Lindsay Roy is no stranger to speaking to journalists. A former president of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, he has done more than his fair share of media-handling - but always in the context of education, not as the quarry of a political press-pack in full cry.

What do the political journalists think of his performance so far? One veteran was equivocal in his verdict: Roy's problem was that, when he was asked a question, he gave "an honest answer" and did not always stick to the party line.

So under the watchful eye of a Labour press officer, The TESS challenged Roy, asking whether straight-talking wasn't actually an advantage for a parliamentary candidate. Without giving a straight yes or no, he appeared to agree: yes, he did have a reputation for integrity, he was not a career politician and was certainly "nobody's poodle". Then he went into politician mode, likening the Labour team working to elect him to working with staff in a school - all working together to a common, perhaps even prudent, purpose.

Why had Roy decided to put himself up for election? Quite simply, he said, because he was "always up for a challenge" and because a number of people locally had asked him to do so. As a Labour Party member for 33 years, it was time to "stand up and be counted" in these difficult times.

So if everything had been going swimmingly for Labour in Government, would he still have been tempted? "I think I still would have," he adds.

For some headteachers, taking over a new school after a highly-critical HMIE report would have been enough of a challenge. But six months into running Kirkcaldy High, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's alma mater, and Roy believes the school has already undergone a transformation: S1 and S2 English reading test scores have doubled from 41 per cent to 83 per cent, pupil and staff confidence and self-esteem have improved and their expectations risen, he claims.

Roy admits to having had to do his homework on some doorstep issues, such as the intricacies of welfare benefits; but on education issues, he is sure-footed. The public, he claims, has not been fooled by the SNP-led Fife Council's boasts about increasing education spending. It may have increased the books and equipment budget by 10 per cent, which in his school meant an increase of Pounds 8,000, but his overall school budget suffered cuts of more than Pounds 100,000.

Parents are angry about a halving in the number of home-school link workers, a move he claims will have an impact on attendance. He spoke to youngsters in Methil who had not been in school for five weeks.

The council had taken away bus supervisors, increased charges for music tuition, and reduced the hours of classroom assistants and auxiliaries, with consequent effects on behaviour and learning support.

The TESS invites him to "think the unthinkable": if he does lose Labour its seat, has he learnt anything from the campaign that would make him do things any differently at school?

He takes a while to answer - perhaps failure has never been contemplated - before saying that local anger at cuts is even stronger than he had appreciated as a headteacher. Who says he cannot do political spin?

On social occasions, Roy is renowned for his stories, and he has a new one for the campaign trail. He is half-way through it when his press officer tells him it is time to go - but he continues anyway.

So, in appreciation of his defiance of the Labour spin machine, we retell it: "A child comes into school with two kittens. A teacher asks what their names are. The child replies: 'They don't have any names - they're SNP kittens.'

"Two weeks later, the teacher stops the child again. 'How are your SNP kittens getting on?' 'Oh,' says the child, 'they're not SNP kittens any longer. Their eyes are open, and they're now Labour kittens.'"


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