Leader for a cash-strapped age

19th November 2010 at 00:00
The new president of School Leaders Scotland is determined that budget cuts should not put a dent in the quality of schooling

You can take the boy out of Motherwell, but in the case of Jim Thewliss, you can't prise him out of Lanarkshire, even when his day job is in Dundee.

The new president of School Leaders Scotland still lives in Carluke, despite having led Harris Academy in Dundee since 1997, giving him a round-trip of some 160 miles a day.

His decision not to move to Dundee when he was appointed to Harris Academy was prompted mainly by family considerations. But one wonders if his ardent following of Motherwell FC also played a part - he admits the only thing that would make him leave the education world is a call-up from Motherwell's manager, Craig Brown.

At 57, he may be disappointed. He does, however, seek to combine his two passions - education and football - by using chat about his team's fortunes as a means of connecting with pupils.

Born and brought up in Motherwell, the son of a steelworks engineer, and educated at the then selective Dalziel High, he was "hugely influenced" by his headteacher, Jimmy Scobbie, who he says was ahead of his time in aspiring to educate the whole child in the 1960s.

Mr Thewliss studied geography at Glasgow University, which he enjoyed, but admits that having to take responsibility for his own learning was a shock to his system after school. It is something he has tried to remedy as a teacher.

His first job was at Braidhurst High in Motherwell, just as the school was upgraded to a full senior secondary. He started work along with 12 other probationers when teaching jobs were so plentiful that appointments barely included an interview.

A decade later, he moved to Perth High as a principal teacher, when Standard grade was being introduced. Moves up the career ladder took him to Carluke High as an assistant head and Wallace High in Stirling as a depute before his headship at Harris Academy.

His career moves have been at critical junctures, and the same can be said of his ascendancy to the role of SLS president. His theme at this week's conference is "Leading into a sustainable future", but he recognises that with unprecedented cuts on the way, his vision that "tomorrow's child should be guaranteed at the very least the same quality of education that today's child has" may not be easy to deliver.

The changes brought in by Curriculum for Excellence will need strong leadership - and heads are the people to provide it, he believes: "We won't roll over and let you stroke our tummies - whatever is done has got to guarantee that it's as good as it was yesterday for kids."

With authorities "thinking the unthinkable" in terms of budget cuts, his plea is "come and talk about it to us first, because you have to understand the implications first".

But part of SLS's problem is that it has no clear role in the upcoming pay and conditions talks at the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. It has never taken up its seat on the teachers' side of the table, choosing instead to advise the management side, Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities). But recent signs are that Cosla is loath to show its hand to the heads' associations as it enters negotiations on the national teachers' agreement, possibly recognising that some of its proposals may not go down too well with school managers.

Will Jim Thewliss be the man to give SLS an authoritative voice? Those who know him from his role in the General Teaching Council for Scotland (he served on the last two councils and was vice-convener of the last) recognise his commitment to raising teachers' professional standards. He was responsible, as chair of the disciplinary sub-committee, for the code of professional conduct spelling out expected standards of behaviour. He was fed up hearing teachers before the committee say: "No one told me I couldn't do that." So he left them with no excuse.

But if he is tough on those who fail to match expectations, he is also generous in his praise for those exceptional teachers who have a natural ability to communicate with youngsters, and is happy to put himself in the category of those who have to work harder to make connections.

That apart, his GTCS experience is seen as giving him the ability to look at the profession from a wider perspective than simply that of head.

If SLS is given the chance to make its voice heard in the coming months, Mr Thewliss may have to become less collegiate in his dealings with other teaching unions than has been the practice at the GTCS council table. Is he up to the job? When he is operating at his best, yes, say colleagues.



Age: 57

Born: Motherwell

Educated: Dalziel High, Glasgow University and Hamilton College of Education


1976-85: Geography teacher, Braidhurst High, Motherwell.

1985-91: Principal teacher, Perth High.

1991-93: Assistant head, Carluke High.

1993-97: Depute head, Wallace High, Stirling.

1997-: Headteacher, Harris Academy, Dundee.

Outside interests: Motherwell FC and holidays in the south of France.

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