New president will step up parity fight

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Rena Mitchell will be the public face of primary headteachers for the next two years. But the 56-year-old head of Forth primary in South Lanarkshire has not yet decided if she will serve out her full term as president of the Association of Head Teachers (Scotland).

"It depends on how it affects the school," she says, reflecting a concern which is a hallmark of the dedication she will bring to the job. She is proud that she knows the names of all 220 pupils, "but I only have to learn one new class a year."

Mrs Mitchell will not have to look further than her own four walls if she runs into any trouble. Frank, her husband, is a former AHTS president and is currently responsible for the increasingly important legal side of the association's activities. He is head of Crawforddyke primary in Carluke and "clustered" in the same school group as his wife. It was her husband's activities that sparked Mrs Mitchell's involvement. Her first headship was in 1977 at Pettinain primary near Lanark and as Mr Mitchell's national preoccupations grew, his wife began to tend the local Lanarkshire patch, graduating to membership of the AHTS council in the late 1980s.

This is as cosy a domestic and professional set-up as could be wished for. But Mrs Mitchell takes the helm at arguably a more crucial time for primary education. It is also a more demanding time for the association which, while it is not the highest profile organisation in Scottish education, does have a growing membership now put at 1,500 (including 170 deputes).

Mrs Mitchell therefore represents 60 per cent of primary heads and has already signalled some determination that she does not want to preside over a talking shop.

As schools convener, Mrs Mitchell was heavily involved in lobbying for parity of salary with secondary heads. A primary head with 600 pupils earns Pounds 6,000 less than a comparable secondary head, and has less support. "It speaks volumes for the national negotiating machinery, and for the teachers' side in particular, that they should have agreed parity of salary for classroom teachers but not for primary heads or deputes.

"Despite the fact that the president of the Educational Institute of Scotland is currently from the primary sector, the union's power base is in secondary schools. Nobody but the AHTS really speaks for the promoted primary staff. "

Fifty-six per cent of primary schools have no depute or assistant head and all three posts only exist in the 9 per cent of primaries with more than 400 pupils. But a secondary with more than 400 pupils is entitled to 23 management posts, more than the total number of teachers in the primary equivalent.

Mrs Mitchell detects some minor progress. The running costs of schools per primary pupil are now 64 per cent of the secondary figure compared with 61 per cent two years ago when the association published its litany of grievances in The Great Divide.

The president comments: "If Pounds 1,100 was regarded as an unsatisfactory reflection of the real cost of a part-time nursery place under the pre-school voucher scheme, how much more inequitable is the average primary cost of Pounds 1,700 per pupil for a full-day place?" Mrs Mitchell takes office at a time when all political parties are committed to investing in primary education. She is worried, however, that the emphasis on the first three years will lead to the neglect of primary 4 to primary 7.

"When I first entered teaching, the main difficulties were with the P6 and P7 pupils. But some extremely aggressive and violent pupils who bite, scratch and fight are now five, six and seven-year-olds who come into school unable to interact with others. They are in a minority but they still have a significant effect on the rest of the class."

A nursery nurse in P1 and P2 "would be very cost-effective and double the amount of adult intervention for the youngest children".

It remains to be seen whether the spotlight on primaries generates heat or lightens the load. Either way, the Mitchell household is heading for interesting times during the next two years.

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