Primary head with a mission of parity

10th May 1996 at 01:00
David Paterson, a long-serving headteacher, makes a neat point about devolved school management. Heads, he says, "spend less time picking up the phone to the authority's office but more time answering calls from outside the school". In other words, more decisions can be taken in school, but the school itself plays more of a part in its community, with the pressures that that brings.

Mr Paterson is capo da capo among primary heads, although he is far too mild mannered to deserve such a Mafia-style description. This week he starts his second of two years as president of the Association of Head Teachers Scotland. He gave a speech yesterday (Thursday) to 100 fellow heads at Dunblane Hydro in which examined the effects of change on the head's job, deplored the level of indiscipline in some schools, pointed to a lack of support from a minority of parents and called for more resources to enable schools to fulfil the wide-ranging demands on them.

The sentiments are familiar. It is the job of the association to press the case with government. The AHTS has established itself on the list of organisations automatically consulted by the Scottish Office. Along with unions and sectoral interests, it has the ear, if not always the assent, of the education minister.

The advent of national curricular guidelines for primary schools, together with other changes which affect primaries as much as secondaries, mean that Mr Paterson, like John Mitchell, who represents secondary heads, knows the way to the new Scottish Office in Leith.

The association has some way to go before its representatives appear in the television spotlight as frequently as, say, those of the Educational Institute of Scotland. Mr Paterson is not a man to seek the limelight. He muses that his successors may need media training, but clearly is relieved that the fashion has not yet hit the association.

But do primary heads need to be more proactive in their relations with the media and public? He points to his association's recent success in seizing and setting the agenda. Publication of The Great Divide drew attention to the way in which primary schools (and their heads) are less well funded and rewarded than their secondary equivalents. Asked the reaction from secondary heads to a report which grabbed the headlines, Mr Paterson replies that they don't talk to him about it.

His own headships stretch back 16 years. He held the post at the now closed Crosshill in a former Fife mining community. For the past 11 years he has been at Dunnikier in Kirkcaldy, where there are 14 classes, a nursery unit, 500 pupils and about 20 teachers. Not only is the school large; it also appears venerable, built of red sandstone brought all the way from Dumfriesshire in 1894 and set among solid late Victorian housing. Inside where the broad central corridor, with classrooms on either side, has become a resource centre for children to work in, there is the usual bustle. Mr Paterson presides over the traditional and contemporary aspects of primary education.

He is a small, neat figure in dark suit and polished shoes and epitomises the popular idea of the traditional primary head. Yet his has been a career that took a sharp turn. "I am actually the Rev David Paterson," he ventures quietly. A Baptist, he attended theological training college and took a degree from London University. In the 1960s, he was to add a diploma from St Andrews University in the then fashionable pastoral and social studies.

His first charge was in Shetland. Moving to Fife, he was asked to help with religious education at Bell Baxter High in Cupar. He decided he would like to teach primary children and trained at Dundee College of Education. "Preaching has a teaching component" he says. "So I found the transition natural. I can say that I successfully wear two hats."

That is a reference to the fact that he still takes occasional services, in the Church of Scotland as well as for Baptist congregations. The ecumenical spirit which has grown since he was a young man is warmly welcome.

David Paterson is a loyal servant, not least of the association. He has held a string of offices, looking after salary matters, convening the schools committee, doing a four-year stint as treasurer, serving a vice-presidential apprenticeship for the presidency. He has never pushed himself forward but has long believed that heads have interests which cannot fully be met by membership of the teacher unions: he left the EIS during the two-year dispute.

So he has devoted long hours to the association, and at 62 he finds himself, probably to his surprise, representing 1,400 heads, more than half the total in primary schools. Modest in himself, he is firm about the distinctive role his colleagues have to play and the need for government to be more generous in recognising it.

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