Relatively speaking - Caring, sharing ethos that spans the generations

6th August 2010 at 01:00
Ken Cunningham is general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, his wife Marion is head of Hamilton College junior school and daughter Pamela starts probation soon at Blacklaw Primary, East Kilbride


I started out studying science at university with a view to getting a job at ICI, but I didn't like the course and dropped out and applied to the Clydesdale Bank. I was accepted but then a letter came saying: "You're going to Kilbirnie." I thought: "Oh aye, very good."

Almost as the letter hit the floor, the phone rang and it was the head of Stanley Junior Secondary. He said: "Hear you're not doing anything. How do you fancy doing teaching?"

I thought it sounded good. It was a marvellous year. It was great fun and I learnt a lot. I was mainly appointed (as an uncertified teacher) to do English, geography and mathematics, but I also taught a bit of science and, when the PE teacher broke his leg, I taught PE.

When I went back to university, I knew I wanted to go into teaching, so I did the four-year B.Ed, thinking that would be the best preparation. This time I decided to focus on history and English. We also got a bit of experience teaching in primary, and that primary interest has run through my career - also, Marion was doing primary.

I'm always annoyed by the secondary attitude to primary. When you are living with it, you know the work, effort, quality and range they have to cover. But secondary has been my love. I just like teenagers and I've got a really seriously soft spot for the down-and-outs who struggle big time.

Marion has been in the private sector for most of her career. It's not been an issue, but I would have found it difficult to go into private education - not because I don't think it should exist, but because I've spent my working life serving social needs, and to have done that would almost have been rejecting what I believed.

I suspect that Marion and I are much the same in the classroom, and in terms of leading schools. We believe in working with people, supporting people and doing that fairly and equitably. But you have to do that within a set of standards. At the end of the day, it's about the young people.

Pam will be an excellent teacher. I wanted her to go into teaching from the beginning. It's great to listen to her and her mum chattering on about what's going on in the classroom. I only get dragged in when it comes to qualifications, assessment, discipline, health and safety - all the serious stuff that gets you into trouble.

I hope she gets a job. If she gets a job, she'll have a superb career, but if she doesn't she'll do other things and be lost to the profession. There are a lot of superb young teachers coming out just now and there are no guarantees for them. It's a tragedy.


I was born in Honduras in central America. My parents were missionaries there. I went to a small missionary boarding school until I was 12. It was just a great big family and I loved it. We came over here just in time for me to enter P7 and sit the 11-plus. I didn't do particularly well, having been in the country for just three months, so I was sent to a junior secondary, Finnart.

It was the pits. I was bullied because of my accent - it was American - and everyone thought I was stupid. I had come from a country where there were cents and dollars, not shillings and pence, and where I had learnt about American history and geography. I really was a dumb-dumb, but then I started to win all the prizes, which made them hate me more. Eventually I was moved to Gourock High.

I stayed there for a few years until mum and dad went back to Honduras. Then I went to live with my grandmother in Largs. I went to another junior secondary and then to Ardrossan Academy to do Highers.

I really did lack self-confidence. When everyone else was going to get their UCAS forms, Joe Parker, my geography teacher, asked why I wasn't. I told him I wasn't clever enough. He went mad and I applied to study geography and Spanish - I was fluent in Spanish, but before I got my results I withdrew. In the end, I got what I needed for university, but it was too late.

I love children. That was probably the driving force behind my coming into teaching. I love watching them develop, seeing them learn. As I was engaged to Kenneth, teaching seemed a sensible thing to do.

I get advice from Kenneth if I'm worried about something, because he understands schools, parents and children. He's great at putting things into perspective. He's very logical, rational and calm. More often than not he's proved to be right, which sometimes galls a bit. But on the fundamental things we agree.

We are both Christian, and therefore have the same ethos on manners and morals and the standard of behaviour. It's not just the way children have to behave, but the way we as adults have to treat them. I know that's something he is very conscious of and it's something I really try to do.

When Pamela first talked about going into teaching, I thought: "Don't - it's so much hard work." But I felt she would make a very good teacher. Now we talk about all the things she could do in the classroom. It's been good to exchange ideas. I've learnt a lot from her.

Neither of our girls was privately educated but if you get a good school, I don't think educationally there's a huge difference - the only difference is probably in the ethos. Hamilton College is overtly Christian, so you can live out your faith. In the state system, that's probably harder. I've also always felt I have more freedom to do things than colleagues in the state sector.


I started primary teaching at Strathclyde in 1999, but then I found out I was expecting my daughter. I did the first year of the course but I was just not able to keep on with it.

When I went back in 2006, it was a big decision. My partner was all for it, and mum and dad helped a lot, but financially it was a huge change in circumstances because I was going from earning a full-time wage (working in insolvency).

The course was hard going. The bits out on placement were the best; you learnt the most getting out there and doing it. In the final year, I had a lot of problems with my back. Luckily, I was able to get out to placement. I was at (my daughter) Chloe's school. She thought this was wonderful. She was in P5 at the time and I ended up in the P6 class next door.

I never experienced that with my parents, but when I was in the later years of secondary, that's when dad was thinking about coming back into school - he'd been out working for HMIE, the authority, the exam board. I remember deciding he would be quite a strict head because that's the way they both were as parents - there were guidelines, boundaries and consequences.

I grew up with education in the background, be it Times Ed on the table or programmes about education on the TV. Nowadays mum and I discuss it constantly. We are forever on the phone asking, "What do you think about this?" It's great to have a sounding board.

Music and drama are two of my passions. I've played the violin since I was six and I work with youth theatre groups, as well as being a member of adult theatre groups myself. I'm also interested in children with additional support needs - an area neither of my parents has worked in. I'd love to merge music and drama with working with children with ASN, but how realistic that is, I don't know.

As told to Emma Seith.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today