King of the Castle departs
Mearns Castle High and its headteacher both come as a surprise. The location, atop a hill overlooking green fields on the south side of Glasgow, and the absence of anything more arboreal than a few slender saplings quickly dispel preconceived notions of a leafy suburb. And East Renfrewshire's description of Ian Climie, who retired this week after 40 years in teaching, as an "old-fashioned heidie", implying that he makes children quail and the ground tremble, fails to prepare you for the slightly-built, soft-spoken man who ushers you into his office.
Mr Climie does not like the phrase either. "I am keen on certain traditional values, so it's true to that extent. But for me the main issues are teaching and learning. I'm more interested in getting those right and in raising the attainment of all the kids than headmasters used to be. To my mind one of the biggest improvements in the past 40 years was the introduction of Standard grades. Before that lots of kids sat no exams or only a few. When they were introduced, with the modal structure so everyone sat seven or eight, it made schools a lot fairer by giving everyone a chance to work for national accreditation."
Even by East Renfrewshire standards - the first council in Scotland to have achieved all the Standard grade and Higher targets set for the year 2001 - results at Mearns Castle are outstanding. Last year it was the top school in the country for three-plus Highers and second for Credit passes at Standard grade. But while not disputing that his is a top school, Mr Climie believes that attainment targets currently provide a thoroughly inadequate picture: "If you only make a song and dance about people who get grades 1 and 2, there are an awful lot of kids you never say anything about at all. At Mearns Castle we like to celebrate everyone's achievements.Last year we had more grade 4s than 5s and that pleased me greatly. I keep telling the kids if you do as well as you can and better than people expect that's wonderful."
He does not believe his school has leapfrogged other successful schools in the past year or two because of recent changes: "It's taken at least 12 years to clarify in our minds how to improve what children experience in school, so they'll perform better. For a start, they have to enjoy coming here. If most of them hate it, you're in trouble. So we've created lots of opportunities outside the classroom - school visits, clubs, supported study. But the most important thing is what happens inside the classroom - the relationships between staff and pupils, the way things are taught, the way children learn.
"One of the big problems at present is the number ofchanges you're confronted with at authority and national level. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. But things like Higher Still can be thought of as just admin changes. They shouldn't be allowed to affect what goes on in classrooms."
He believes school management must adapt national changes to suit their school, so they become less stressful for the teachers. "You can only do that if you have a clear idea where your school is going. That's where planning comes in. At the end of the Eighties we started to focus on planning and I'm certain our recent successes have arisen from teachers and management becoming steadily more confident in planning exactly what it is they're going to do."
Mr Climie will not burn bridges. "I'm one of the world's worst golfers, so I won't be spending all my time on the golf course, and I might want to come back and do something in education."
But he admits that it took time to adapt to working with East Renfrewshire Council after sprawling Strathclyde. "It's much smaller and more closely-knit. There are times when you might wish the relationship wasn't quite so intimate, but there's no doubt they, like us, are focused on attainment for everybody. If I have an idea for the kids, I get on to East Renfrewshire and they're supportive. That didn't happen with Strathclyde."
Mr Climie made assistant head at Johnstone High in 1973, and headteacher of Williamwood High in the same year. In 1978 he became the first head of the new Mearns Castle. His headteacher training lasted three weeks.
"An excellent course run by Edinburgh University. Nowadays, of course, heads are trained in advance and I just worry that paper qualifications might become more important than experience. Because of illness among the older staff, a group of us at Johnstone High were thrown in at the deep end. They called us the 'young team' and none of has had any experience of management. We had to learn very quickly. It was an exciting time and we all became heads.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed being a head. One thing that has changed over the years is the attitude of parents. Most are very supportive but, especially in an area like this, there's a small percentage who criticise all the time, and that can get very wearing.
"For someone starting out in the job I'd encourage them to concentrate on planning. If you can put up with the difficulties, the job brings tremendous rewards." Finally, advice from Mr Climie to Her Majesty's inspectors: "I came back from a seminar they ran, more knowledgeable but not more enthused. They are supposed to be world leaders but sometimes they just go through the motions. Teachers get criticised for not teaching well enough - well some inspectors don't teach well."