James Bellshaw

3rd May 2013 at 01:00
The headteacher of Queen Anne High in Dunfermline, which received an outstanding inspection report marking it out as one of the best schools in Scotland, talks about the importance of passion, tenacity and tradition. Interview by Henry Hepburn. Photography by James Glossop

How would you describe Queen Anne High when you arrived in 2007?

There were issues around staff morale, budgets and behaviour. Attainment was nowhere near what it could have been, and there was a lack of a positive ethos. There was generally a sad story of a school that should have been doing much better.

Is that something you can spot quickly in a school?

There is a vibe that you can almost pick up between your car and the reception. You're looking for litter, for whether the green space has been tamed. You're hoping not to see graffiti, or students hanging about, and not to hear much beyond effective teaching and learning.

What's the first thing you do as a new head?

I had a fortunate introduction to the school. I was known to many people. With my track record as a head at Beath High, too, I was made very welcome. On my first day I had six assemblies. These, I'm told, started the turnaround. I made it very clear what I wanted from students. You have to lay out your stall quickly.

How crucial is it to set the tone right from the start?

I don't think there's a way back if you don't.

What has been the most telling sign of improvement?

SQA attainment. If you take five Credits, we've gone from 34 to 49 per cent; five Highers, from 19 to 33 per cent; one Advanced Higher in sixth year, from 13 to 26 per cent.

What's most crucial in raising attainment?

I would use three words: passionate, about education and the desire for young people to do well; tenacious, in that when I know something is good for the student I maintain my stance; but also I've been described as extremely traditional.

What do you think people mean by "traditional"?

I expect young people to arrive smartly dressed; to be courteous - HMIE mentioned how often doors were held open for them; and to work hard and fulfil their potential. Most importantly, I want them to be safe, happy and proud here.

Inspectors praised "exemplary attitudes" among the 1,700 students. Could you give an example?

Their pride in the school. I arrange to speak to a number of students every day - it's known as The Daily Dozen. Students can be candid with me. Senior students were delighted when the inspection was coming up because they believed the school would come out of it well.

Staff were found to act on students' views. In what way?

I'm encouraging staff to ask young people at the end of a lesson whether there was any part that was particularly good or needed some reinforcement; that reflects the climate in the school.

Why are your school awards "innovative", as inspectors described them?

We're trying to measure achievement outside school, then have a ceremony with parents and carers. We did that last year for the first time and it went down extremely well. We also have the usual academic ceremony, where a small number of students are recognised. We need to try to cover every young person. Some children may not get the top maths prize, but if they are polite, trying their best and doing their homework - that has to be recognised. We're saying "Well done" to more than 90 per cent of students through one awards system or another.

You had a spell as a Fife Council education manager. Why did you return to headship?

At Beath High there had been a campaign for a new school, which we won, and an inspection had gone well. I was in my early forties and looking for something else. The senior managerdepute director job came along, and I thought: "I'm young enough to give this three or four years - if I don't like it, hopefully I can get back to a school."

Did you like it?

No. I missed school bells, students, the walk to see a maths or English lesson.

What is the secret of good leadership?

High expectations, parents signed up to how you're heading up the school, a very strong team around you, students understanding that you want the best for them. And a real desire to take the school to the highest level.

What is the biggest challenge ahead for Scottish secondary schools?

I would like to see us improve in languages. I'm just back from China; the majority of young people on the streets of Beijing could converse with me.

What do you think of the national policy to have children learn two extra languages from a young age?

It's ambitious, but I'm happy with that. There are some nurseries in China where nothing is spoken but English - that was maybe going a bit far. But the more ambitious we are, the further we'll go.

Who are the biggest influences on your career?

Hugh Russell, my Govan High physics teacher, and Adam McBride, my maths lecturer. You could tell they were really keen on their subjects - that drew me in.

What has been your proudest moment?

To be told we were up there with the top-performing schools in the country. I was prouder still to go and tell staff and students about it.

Personal profile

Born: Glasgow, 1957

Education: Govan High, Glasgow; maths at the University of Strathclyde; teacher training at Jordanhill College, Glasgow.

Career: Maths teacher, Colston Secondary, Glasgow; principal teacher, Castle Douglas High School, Dumfries and Galloway; assistant headteacher, Balwearie High School, Fife; deputy headeacher and headteacher, Beath High School, Fife; senior education manager, Fife Council; headteacher, Queen Anne High School, Dunfermline.

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