It all began across the pink custard

17th March 2000 at 00:00
My inquisitive glance caught the eye of the new young modern languages student as I gazed forlornly across the dining-hall table. Her glasses misted over momentarily as my interest was detected. "Could this be the coup de foudre?" I mused longingly. No alas, it was the steam rising from the ubiquitous pink custard.

Twenty-six years later, May Sweeney will now have her own patch to manage as headteacher of McLaren High school in Callander. Her new constituency will forgive me for suggesting that the touristic Trossachs may present very different challenges to the urban sprawl of east Edinburgh, where I earn my daily corn. It will also contrast sharply with the moonscape of industrial Lanarkshire, where she has spent most of her career. I have already recommended that she enrol for the training module "Dealing with marauding pensioners on coach tours".

Four years ago, it was an intrepid departure from the familiar for May to apply for the post of depute headteacher in St Modan's High school in Stirling. She had spent two decades in Lanarkshire schools, including a stint in St Patrick's High in Coatbridge, where she had been a pupil in the epoch of the redoubtable James Breen.

It was Breen and his colleagues who fostered in May and her contemporaries commitment to high standards and the conviction that only the best would do. There was no talk then of positive discrimination or mushrooming of lavishly funded projects in industrial areas, but a firm commitment to fostering ambition and high aspirations. Whether she is composing a development plan, teaching a class, or even weeding the lawn, May likes to see the job done well.

In St Modan's, Stirling, headteacher Frank Lennon presented May and her senior colleagues with an outstanding example of commitment and dedication. When appointed, he harboured ambitious aspirations for his school, including a determination to raise levels of attainment substantially. Unimpressed by scepticism and undunted by criticism, he quickly won the loyalty of an experienced staff and secured the confidence of parents and the co-operation of pupils. National examination statistics demonstrate that the percentage of young people gaining Credit awards at Standard grade has soared in recent years.

May's own role in St Modan's progress included a root-and-branch revamp of guidance and learning support to create an integrated pupil support system. This investment in pastoral care has sparked interest both nationally and locally.

Adopting an unorthodox approach to staff development, she cajoled more than 40 women staff into participating in a Race for Life, in support of advances in breast cancer treatment. This event provided an ideal curtain-raiser for SMILE, St Modan's Initiative for Lifestyle Enhancement. The programme offered aromatherapy, yoga and regular health-checks. It was open inclusively to staff at all levels - and janitors, cleaners and office staff as well as teachers gamely signed up. A curricular continuity programme for associated primary schools benefited Bannockburn and tantalised Tullibody.

Although an infrequent caller, I invariably enjoyed my visits to St Modan's. The school exuded friendliness, from Lucien, the janitor, who addressed me in beautiful meridional French to the gigantically healthy and courteous senior pupils, who towered above me at the annual ceilidh, testifying to the nutritional value of the local gastronomy.

May carries into her new role the example of a highly successful school, the experience gleaned from colleagues over the years and the unalloyed approbation of an admiring husband. She also brings in her baggage a fund of anecdotes and quotations from parents and pupils, including the tale of the mother who recently remarked of her son, "He's got no manners, Mrs Sweeney. He's even cheeky to the dug."

Pat Sweeney is May Sweeney's husband and headteacher at Holy Rood High school, Edinburgh

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