Heads of the family

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Mother and daughter Jean and Gillian Keenan are primary heads in East Ayrshire

Jean retired this summer; Gillian, who became a head aged 33, is carrying on a family tradition established by her grandfather, who was also a headteacher in Ayrshire

Jean Keenan, retired as head of Lainshaw Primary

I could have retired two-and-a-half years ago, but I have been in the fortunate position that I enjoyed where I was - Lainshaw Primary in Stewarton - and opted to stay on.

My father, Frank Carruthers, was also a headteacher - at Catrine Junior Secondary in East Ayrshire when it was a small village school. A lot of my childhood was spent playing in the school playground on a tricycle, pedalling up and down. Our Christmas tree always came from the school to the schoolhouse. I am one of four - a boy and three girls. The girls went into teaching and my brother chose medicine. My older sister taught maths and the younger one is teaching in the prison service.

When I was eight or nine, my father became head of James Hamilton Academy in Kilmarnock. At that time, when pupils transferred into secondary, they had to do a six-month transition and I remember being in his school before going to Kilmarnock Academy. It gave me a different sense of my dad, because he floated around in his robes. The school was where East Ayrshire Council's headquarters are now.

I went to college in 1965. It was a well-recognised option for girls at secondary to go into teaching. The thing I notice now, with younger people coming into the profession, is that they have a pre-determined career path. I can't say I had anything like that.

I got married and had a family and didn't see a career in teaching at that point. But things in my life changed and I had to come back into it when my children were quite small. People were begging you to come back and do supply, sometimes long-term, which I hated. But looking back, it was very formative. I learned a lot about different ways of doing things and relating to people.

Then I got a permanent contract at Tarbolton Primary. Mary Wilson was a very conscientious and committed headteacher and she gave me opportunities to do things. She was absent for a short period and I covered for her. When she came back, I remember her coming into the classroom and asking: "You are going to go, aren't you?" Just the flavour of covering for her absence was a real development time for me. Mary was always looking for ways of doing things better for the children and their families.

When I started teaching in 1968, we did a lot of topic or theme-related work but it didn't always have the pace and progression that were built into 5-14. In some respects, 5-14 became too prescriptive - the width and breadth of aspects of the curriculum were too much for primary, and there was a feeling you had to get through it all - and then national assessments came along.

With A Curriculum for Excellence, I see the need for change. We had to have something more skills-based. In my day and generation, people had jobs for life; nowadays, we reckon people will have three or four jobs in the course of their career, so it's important that young people have the skills associated with the four capacities to enable them to make these changes in their life.

There's been a lot of scaremongering about A Curriculum for Excellence. My view is that the emphasis is more on methodology than content. People are quite concerned about lack of content but, in my school, we developed the methodology over a period of years and that's the same in many.

The concern I have is that some of the steps in the outcomes are very vague. When you're working with young children in primary, it's important that all the building blocks are there. If you miss out a significant step in maths or language, the whole foundation is shaky. I'm not convinced that all the basic steps are as clear as they could be.

There are huge questions associated with assessment - nobody knows how that's going to develop. As a school, we were heavily involved with Assessment is for Learning but, if you are going to compare results from year to year, standards will need to be set and I don't think that's all in place.

At one headteacher meeting, I looked up and saw a picture of Father and then looked across the table and saw Gillian, and thought: "This is very odd."

Gillian is much better at paperwork than I am, she's more focused. There are times when I say "what have you done about such and such?" - so it's a bit of role reversal. She does everything thoroughly.

I feel fortunate to be leaving while still loving my job and my school. There are huge challenges ahead in terms of A Curriculum for Excellence and managing all the changes associated with reduced budgets and so on. That part I am not sorry to leave behind.

Gillian Keenan, Headteacher at Hurlford Primary

I wanted to be a teacher when I was younger, but when I went to secondary I went off the idea. I was there during the teachers' strikes in the 1980s and I became interested in other areas - I did nursing at Glasgow University. A lot of it was based in the university and then we had placements in hospitals, but it didn't feel natural - it didn't feel like the right thing, so I changed to do a social sciences degree, not really with a view to teaching.

When I went to Jordanhill and did a PGCE, I saw it as another option at that point. I had been involved in youth camps and working with young people in the church and was looking to see what would be the next thing for me. There was a lot of competition for places, but I got in and found it was something I enjoyed. I felt this was my natural leaning and vocation - quite different from how it felt in nursing.

I graduated in 1994 and did a lot of supply and long-term cover for two- and-a-half years. I felt frustrated at the time, because I wanted to get a flat but couldn't without the security of a permanent job. I finally got a full-time post at Dalmilling Primary and then moved to Hurlford in 1997; while there, I did a postgraduate diploma in early education.

I am someone who likes challenges. I'd been teaching at Hurlford for five to six years when an email came round about the Scottish Qualification for Headship. I remember thinking I would not have much chance as I only had about six years' experience, but I went for the interview and was fortunate enough to get on the course.

After I completed the SQH in 2004, I was offered a headteacher's post at Littlemill in Rankinston, a mining village in the south of East Ayrshire. There were 35 children and a small nursery; I was not a teaching head. It was a great opportunity to learn the ropes - there was me, two teachers and nursery staff.

I was appointed to my current post at Hurlford, which has 280 pupils and a nursery, in December 2007. The authority announced that Littlemill was being closed, but I had applied before we knew about the plans - I didn't start until April 2008. In fact, Littlemill is still open. That was a difficult period because people's perception might have been that I was jumping ship.

My mother and I have always discussed things, but we've been careful of the fact we're in the same authority. We go to the same headteacher meetings and try to keep our relationship separate, but you talk about things outwith the school. It's been important for me, and my mother, that we were our own person.

I am at the early stages of my career as a head so I am aware of the accountability and responsibility, whereas people in the job a bit longer have that experience and are a more relaxed. I can't relax yet.

I was 33 when I became head of Littlemill - my career progression has come quite quickly. I was a class teacher and then a headteacher. When I was doing the SQH, I was doing depute-type roles without being paid for them. I didn't have a game plan. As opportunities came along, I took them and that opened doors to the next step.

I had training with the SQH but, if you allow your mind to dwell on the level of responsibility you have as a head, it's a huge pressure. If anything goes wrong in school, you are responsible. Nowadays, there's no such thing as an accident.

But I like the variety that comes with the job - the child who's a bit more challenging. One thing I have learnt is that there's not always a single method. My mother is probably my biggest educational role-model. She has a very good reputation within the authority, and I recognise the qualities in her that I would like to develop - but I recognise that my paperwork is much better.

As told to Elizabeth Buie.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today