The last great battle

4th December 1998 at 00:00
Primary heads are unfairly penalised by a pay structure that should change with the times, says David Nicholson

THERE WAS a time, not so long ago, when only those with honours degrees were held fit to be the headteachers of senior secondary schools. But, perhaps, headmasters would be the better term, for this was a male reserve.

That a mere Ordinary graduate, whose depth of knowledge was surely suspect, could command such an eminent position was not to be thought of and had anyone contended that a person qualified in such minor subjects as art or physical education could aspire to the leadership of a secondary school he would have been dismissed as a dangerous subversive prepared to jeopardise the superiority of our Scottish educational system.

Now, when secondary schools are much more complex institutions, such appointments are taken as a matter of course and it is recognised that initial degree qualifications of 20 or more years standing contribute little to headteacher competencies.

I remember, too, when I was working as a principal teacher, the first BEd students sent to the school by the local training college. These were a strange new hybrid, persons whose training would equip them to teach in both primary and secondary schools - with the important proviso that in secondary they would be restricted to lower year groups.

Again it was held that they were not of the calibre to face up to the rigours of O grade or Higher presentation. This, too, has now changed, and there are many in both principal teacher posts and in more senior management positions whose BEd background has proved a sound basis on which to build successful careers in departmental and school management.

All this was, of course, at a time when those who worked in our primary schools were paid on a different and lower scale from any of their secondary colleagues. After all, it was obvious wasn't it that secondary teaching was so much more demanding with older and therefore more important pupils, the complexity of discrete subject teaching and, for some at least, certificate examinations?

And now the "last battle" is about to commence as in a unique display of unity education authorities band together to prove that, while those who teach in primary and secondary schools merit equal remuneration, the task of managing is such as to justify a substantial differential in favour of secondary heads.

I had better declare a pecuniary interest: my wife is a primary head and should the current action by the Association of Head Teachers in Scotland prove successful our family will benefit financially. That said, I can also add as someone with 15 years' experience as a secondary headteacher that it is simply embarrassing to read the list of key points on which the education authorities are basing their attempts at rebuttal.

The desperation which informs the authorities' case is palpable, driven by panic at the budget implications, and has produced absurdities which, I am sure, convince their authors no more than they do me. In essence, secondary heads deserve to be paid more than primary heads because our education authorities have put in place a system which gives the secondary school a better teacher-pupil ratio, more staff with management responsibilities and time to carry them out, greater numbers of support staff and a much more generous annual budget.

Without doubt the classic case of "to those who have will be given". It is a case that sits more than a little uneasily alongside current concerns over the rigidity of the secondary subject timetable and the multiplicity of promoted posts, not to mention the key role assigned to primary schools through nursery expansion and early intervention programmes.

If those who run the education service genuinely wish to see a raising of attainment then they must accept that the primary head undertakes work of equal value. Of course, the structures of the two sectors differ enormously but the effect of that difference is perhaps to suggest that any differential should work in favour of the primary head.

Target-setting, monitoring and evaluation are what schools are asked to be about. It is the primary head, by reason of the impoverished management structure, who shoulders the main burden of these functions across all modes in the 5-14 curriculum in an immediate and direct way not known to secondary colleagues.

It is the primary head, therefore, who is more directly accountable for the perceived failures of the school and who can take more personal credit for the successes. The secondary head has to share the credit and can divert blame on to underperforming departmental management.

In the primary school, the head has nowhere to hide.

David Nicholson is former headteacher of Victoria Drive Secondary, Glasgow.

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