Mining a new seam

5th September 2008 at 01:00
In his first interview since being appointed chief executive of the GTCS, Tony Finn tells Emma Seith about his passion for learning and teaching

Aspiring chartered teachers should have their classroom practice endorsed by their headteacher or senior colleagues before gaining access to the programme, believes Tony Finn, the incoming chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

It is a stance certain to antagonise teaching unions, who have argued since the national teachers' agreement was signed eight years ago that a place on the programme should not be in the "gift" of senior management staff.

However, Mr Finn insists the move is a "logical" one to ensure chartered teacher status reflects good classroom practice, not just academic ability, as he believes it has done in the past. "People have been allowed onto the programme who, in different circumstances, might not have been," he says.

The prospect of "senior colleague endorsement" being made a requirement for entry was opened earlier this year by the Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, when she charged the GTCS with drawing up "unequivocal guidance" on the evidence teachers must provide before being accepted on to the programme.

Mr Finn, former head of St Andrew's High in Kirkcaldy and currently depute director of education in Fife, will take over as chief executive of the GTCS on September 22.

He acknowledges it would be foolish to say he knows all the answers before he has all the questions. But, he points out, there are some issues that the GTCS will have to face fairly soon. Chartered teachers is one; another is the changing status of the GTCS, from quango to self-regulating standalone body, along the lines of the General Medical Council - an opportunity, he believes, to make the body more "user-friendly".

"A lot of teachers think the GTCS is only about regulation and discipline," Mr Finn comments. But it has the opportunity to influence government and engage in almost all aspects of thinking in relation to the future of education."

Learning and teaching are his "passion", coming as he does from a family "committed to education". This summer, The TESS reported on some of Scotland's teaching dynasties - but not "the Finnasty". Mr Finn's father was a headteacher; his brother, Gerry, is a professor of educational psychology at Strathclyde University; and one of his sisters is an early years co-ordinator in London. His wife Margaret was a careers officer but now teaches at Kings Road Primary in Rosyth. "It was a case of, if you can't beat `em, join `em," he says, laughing.

His "close and supportive" family and the strong Catholic values with which he was raised have helped shape the man, he says. Arguably it was his father, Thomas, who wielded the greatest influence. Certainly, it was he who determined Mr Finn's football affiliation - he is an avid Celtic supporter. "Living in Ayrshire, we went to Ayr United games but, at half- time, my father always wanted to know the Celtic score."

Thomas Finn was head at St Andrews Academy in Saltcoats when the young Tony took up his first teaching post there as a modern languages teacher in 1975. "I needed to prove to other people not just once, but twice, that I was worthy of the appointment - even years later." Others must have thought him worthy: by 1988, when he left St Andrews, he had risen to acting head.

Cumnock, the mining town in South Ayrshire where he was born and bred, has also left its mark, with what he says is its strong community spirit and sense of respect and trust.

"The political background of mining communities engendered an interest in politics and teacher politics," he says.

When the so-called "Ayrshire mafia" dominated the Educational Institute of Scotland in the 1980s, Mr Finn was an active member of the union - marked out for stardom, it was said, by none other than the godfather himself, John Pollock, a close friend of his father's who was then the EIS general secretary.

Today, he is still a member but, as an education manager, his relationship with the unions changed. Nonetheless, his background has given him sharp political antennae and he is confidently predicted to be an effective political operator in his new role.

He says that, in all his careers, his priorities have remained the same : "improving students' learning and teaching, and improving the circumstances within which teachers teach and children learn".

He is excited that "pedagogy" is coming to the fore as a result of A Curriculum for Excellence. "In the past, we have talked about teaching courses and what needed to be delivered in the 5-14 curriculum, for instance. Now what we are saying is, in addition to that, we have to look at the skills a teacher needs to motivate pupils."

If teachers are failing, they must be removed from the register, he says. But he stresses that very few are. "We should celebrate the standard of teachers in Scotland's schools. But do I think some teachers have not got these standards? Yes. Have I come across them? Yes. Do I believe something should be done about them? Yes, I do."

One answer, Mr Finn suggests, is for the Government to fund local authorities so they can release older teachers and offer employment to "fresh" recruits.

Ultimately, the most important job in teaching, he claims, is in the classroom. He left it, he says, because he felt the more responsibility he had, the more impact he could make on youngsters' lives.

Like many who rise to the top, Mr Finn insists he never had a career plan - but he is pleased with the way things have worked out.

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