Practising what he preaches

30th May 2008 at 01:00
Elizabeth Buie talks to the first general secretary of School Leaders Scotland about faith, values and 'change for change's sake'
Elizabeth Buie talks to the first general secretary of School Leaders Scotland about faith, values and 'change for change's sake'

In August, Ken Cunningham will become the first general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, the rechristened Headteachers' Association of Scotland.

His name will be familiar to most people involved in education - not only as a past-president of HAS, but through his membership of many national committees and groups, perhaps the most high-profile having been the chairmanship of the group that reviewed Higher English.

When he first arrived at Glasgow University, it was to study science, with his eye on employment with ICI. After a year, he realised it was not for him and spent the next year working as an uncertificated teacher of English, maths, geography, chemistry and PE at Stanley Junior Secondary in North Ayrshire. The experience taught him a lot about the needs of youngsters, particularly "those who had failed and been written off, and those whom the system had failed and who found themselves in the wrong place", he says. It was the catalyst for a distinguished career in education.

Now he believes it is time to retire as a secondary head. For 15 years he has led Hillhead High, one of Glasgow's most multicultural schools, through a merger with Woodside Secondary and its recent HMIE inspection. His initial task with SLS will be around its rebranding as a broader church that represents the views of school leaders beyond the ranks of heads and their deputes.

Mr Cunningham is known as someone not afraid to pull his punches, notably over the performance of the schools inspectorate. He knows from the inside, as a long-serving associate assessor, how inspection works, and did not believe the team which inspected his school understood its essence. He said so publicly and privately.

He is a father and grandfather, a keen sportsman, and an elder, secretary and lay preacher with Cartsbridge Evangelical Church in Busby. His faith is fundamental to who he is and how he behaves, he says: "I have never known otherwise and never wanted otherwise."

His Christianity has, he believes, helped him lay down the values he expects everyone to share at Hillhead - where a third of the pupils are bilingual - whatever their faith.

He was once asked by Learning and Teaching Scotland to speak to its staff about which values he felt were at the heart of a learning community. He thought he knew, but perhaps he was being presumptuous. So he asked individuals, from the janitorial staff to teachers, what they thought were the key values of Hillhead. The answers were integrity, challenge and achievement and celebrating them, and support and caring for each other.

For the first four to five years he led the school, his mantra was simple - that everyone show a commitment to care. You cannot achieve excellence, he believes, unless its pursuit is carried out within a supportive community. There are many ethnic and local communities represented within his school - the key is that they support and are comfortable with each other.

There are few, however, who can claim an insight into quite so many parts of the education establishment as Mr Cunningham - whether serving on the working group that set up Standard grade 20 years ago, the national steering group into the SQA crisis of 2000, as chair of the BBC Education Broadcasting Council in Scotland, vice-chair of Glasgow Enterprise Board, member of the Scottish Further Education Unit's core skills advisory group or member of Strathclyde University's General Convocation.

"One reason for being involved in all of this is that I seriously like to influence the people who are influencing the life that I lead. I am intolerant of change for change's sake and things that happen without a strong foundation," he says.

That should ring some alarm bells with the Education Secretary as she embarks on her consultation on qualifications reform. Mr Cunningham is not against some of the proposals, but cautions anyone "mucking around with a national system" that they must factor in the youngsters. "You have to imagine the person and what it means for them," he counsels. "It always upsets me when I hear really good people questioning certain things that are happening, and then nobody listening to them. With the Higher Still reforms, people warned that certain things would not work and quite clearly it went into meltdown."

The key message from the OECD report into Scottish education was that the system is good and robust, but has the capacity to change for the better. That change, he believes, has to be carried out carefully, so that it doesn't destroy the good things in the system.


Age: 60

Born: Saltcoats

Education: Ardrossan Academy and Glasgow University, BEd in English and history;

First teaching post: Cumbernauld High, also gaining an MEd in psychology and administration and management;

Subsequent teaching career: Airdrie Academy as assistant principal teacher of guidance; North Kelvinside Secondary in Glasgow as PT of English; moved to Garthamlock Secondary as assistant headteacher.

1982: moved to Dumbarton division of Strathclyde Region as adviser in English and drama

1989: moved to Glasgow as inspector of the quality assurance unit.

1993: became headteacher of Hillhead High, Glasgow

2008: appointed general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (the new title for the Headteachers' Association of Scotland).

Photograph: Chris JamesEpicscotland.

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