High standards and expectations

21st February 2003 at 00:00
The Shadow Education Minister spends time with the headteacher of a school that has faced adversity but now is in great demand

Even though I am married to a headteacher, I am deeply suspicious of the breed, a suspicion dunned into me by my father, who came to teaching late in life and whose scepticism about those who climbed career ladders was ingrained.

His particular opprobrium was reserved for headteachers of large, historic, secondary schools. To him they were either insensitive megalomaniacs, completely out of touch with the reality of the chalk face, or suckers-up to any and all authority, particularly the local education department and its senior officials. The worst type combined both sets of faults.

In my travels around Scottish schools over the past two and a bit years, I have met such headteachers on more than one occasion (though it would be churlish to name them). But I have met others as well, some of them the most committed, enthusiastic and achieving individuals in any job, anywhere in Scotland. One of those is Brian Miller, the rector (a good historic term) of Dalziel High in Motherwell.

Being in charge of a secondary school in North Lanarkshire is not a piece of cake. As the council itself admits, North Lanarkshire has been among the areas hardest hit by de-industrialisation: it has the second highest incidence of multiple deprivation in the country, 30 per cent of households are on income support, almost as many children are entitled to free school meals, and nearly 40 per cent can claim school clothing grants.

Parts of Motherwell are still moderately prosperous and the old industrial sites are sprouting new housing. But even here educational achievement was at rock bottom in the late 1970s. Dalziel High was faced with a plummeting roll and all the indicators of success going the wrong way.

Tthe school took a grip of itself and decided to survive. Academic performance has improved dramatically, with a 100 per cent increase in key passes at Standard grade and almost 50 per cent at Higher grade. The school has won the Charter Mark, the Cosla Award for excellence and a clutch of other honours and is now working to become a health promoting school.

Clearly this is the work of more than one person, but Mr Miller's leadership is a key factor in the progress that has been made.

When I arrived to shadow him he was in the process of ringing a parent to tell him that his child would now be able to attend the school, a place having become available. The roll is capped at just under 1,000 and the pressure for places is so great that any child applying to be admitted needs to come complete with a letter from their family's solicitor confirming that they have bought a house within the catchment area, or a letter from the council confirming a new tenancy.

Mr Miller is a hands-on headteacher. It soon became obvious that our chat over a cup of coffee was not going to be allowed to progress for more than a minute or so without some form of interruption, be it from pupils seeking information, teachers seeking equipment or the delivery of 150 free packs of toothpaste and mouthwash. So we went to walk the corridors.

You can tell a good school from its corridors. These are full of displays and information and with not a graffiti scrawl in sight. Mr Miller set out to make Dalziel High a place you want to come to and to do that he demanded the highest standards from every pupil and every staff member.

The basic requirement for young people is that they turned up (absenteeism was virtually out of control at one stage). So children come every day and they arrive on time. When in the school they know that they have to do their best and usually they choose to do so because everybody else does. It is a kindly form of zero tolerance and it works.

In return for doing one's best, the school gives a great deal back. We inspect the vending machines in the refurbished cafeteria, which dispense bottled water with a Dalziel High School label. (I am given a couple to add to the volumes of information that I am already carrying.) We look at the art rooms, bright and full of ideas and imagination.

We check on the use of gas and electricity, so that the budget can be kept under control. We discuss with most of the department heads we meet their shopping lists for resources that may become available as the financial year progresses, and savings are earmarked for use elsewhere.

Physical education wants both a new printer for its computer and new hurdles for the sports field (itself renewed and officially reopened by the Princess Royal in April 2001). Geography, history, modern studies and modern languages all want new books. Someone asks for a DVD player, but that is deemed at present to be a luxury: books always come first.

Every six weeks there is a reassessment of the budget and if there are resources available for reallocation, they are identified and ploughed back into education. Little bits of money thrown at schools at different times of the year for largely cosmetic purposes by the Chancellor or the Scottish Executive sometimes put spanners in this well planned approach. None the less, they are welcome, though they are no substitute for carefully thought through, long-term support.

A rector of a historic school - this one was established in 1898 and the main buildings date from 1918, although they were refurbished in 1991 - is pulled in several ways at once. The comfort of resting on laurels is appealing but the reality is that decline and decay is everywhere. As society changes, the impact that tradition and implied standards - the unwritten laws of such an establishment - have is less and less on young people. If such schools do not move forward, they fall backward.

Men and women of strong character were needed to run such schools when they were established and they are needed more than ever to run them now. But strong character does not mean brutality, arrogance or insensitivity.

Mr Miller seems genuinely popular among his whole school community and genuinely inclusive in his actions, though he has had to take unpopular decisions. He has been wise enough to hold on to the best of the traditions of the school he inherited but he has also been wise enough to change what had to be changed and to change it utterly.

A modern rector - if that is not a contradiction in terms - is in part a skilled financial manager, in part a practical educational theorist, in part a sensitive commanding officer, in part an experienced negotiator, in part a wily politician and in part simply a survivor. The really good ones, whose schools show the impact of something special, have another gift as well. They are able to command respect and support and do so with humour and even a rough type of Scottish charm.

Brian Miller has all of those qualities. I suspect he might even have changed my father's view of heidies.

Next week: Rosemary McMillan, senior teacher at St David's Primary, Edinburgh

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