Ronnie Summers

23rd November 2012 at 00:00
The new president of School Leaders Scotland and head of Musselburgh Grammar talks about the challenges of implementing CfE, the National 4 and 5 qualifications and the place of Scottish literature in English exams. Interview by Elizabeth Buie and Nyla Ahmad Photography James Glossop

What is the biggest challenge facing the secondary sector?

Delivering Curriculum for Excellence. It's a seven-year development programme. It's more challenging than anything we've done in my lifetime, as previous change programmes have focused, certainly in secondaries, on two-year blocks. I think teachers have risen to the challenges facing them but there isn't a huge amount of resources.

Is your school implementing Curriculum for Excellence successfully?

I think so. I'm lucky - I've been able to have good educational conversations with the staff. For me, the core thing about CfE is the quality of teaching and learning. It's about the content of the curriculum; the assessments children are being asked to do; the judgement teachers are making; finding how to support pupils; giving them confidence, trust; about building relationships. And many of those things were already in place before CfE.

What model are you implementing - 2+2+2 or 3+3? And how many subjects can your S4 pupils study?

The question about structures is not the core one about CfE. It's about the quality of learning and teaching in the classroom. SLS has been clear - schools should be devising models suited to their circumstances.

So what's appropriate for your school?

When I've been talking to my parents, they still see the value of pupils having a wide range of qualifications in S4. So we've worked back from that so there are elements of choice in S2. The majority of subjects children are choosing in S2 they will take forward in S4. They will take eight subjects in total.

What do you think of the new Nationals 4 and 5? Should the changes have been more radical?

I have to declare an interest, given that I was on the sub-group that made the recommendations for Nationals 4 and 5. You could have been very radical and done away with the examinations system altogether and simply had a system of school-based assessment. I'm not sure if, culturally, Britain is ready to go down that route.

Have you seen a change in pupils' attitudes over the years?

Yes - I think pupils and their parents are far more aware of what education can do for them. I get slightly irritated by people who claim there was some golden age in Scottish education. What they mean is there was a small group of people going forward to qualifications. When I started teaching, we had non-certificated education - children had 11 years of education and no formal qualifications at the end of it. Now they do.

Do you miss being in the classroom?

Yes, to a certain extent. You miss the closeness of the relationships you build with pupils; you miss the enjoyment of seeing them getting it, that "lightbulb moment". I didn't ever miss the marking load that you have as an English teacher.

As a former English teacher, do you agree with the move to introduce a compulsory Scottish text into the English exams?

I have very mixed feelings about it. I certainly think that Scottish literature has got its place in the canon of English teaching in Scottish schools. I'm a little unsure whether it's wise to include it as an examinable element - I would like to think that teachers can be trusted to teach the various texts and cover all the aspects of the course and not just "question spot".

Did you have a favourite book to teach?

I once taught The Merchant of Venice translated into a story about an East End bookie; I loved teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and Cider with Rosie - and Edwin Morgan's poems. And I loved teaching war poetry - it still has the ability to move pupils, even though it's nearly a century old.

What kind of leader do your staff see you as?

I'm not a great believer in the heroic head. I think you need to make space for your colleagues' views. But at the end of the day, you have to do what you think is right for the school and sometimes that can mean you're ploughing a lone furrow.

Would you like to have more power devolved to you as a headteacher?

I think you need to be very careful in getting what you wish for. There are advantages and disadvantages in moving away from the current system of local authorities running education departments.

What do you think of the National Partnership Group report published earlier this month?

I quite like the idea of hub schools. I think it's a good move to be recognising the importance of teacher judgement when trainee teachers are in the classroom, but I have a little concern about the potential resourcing costs to schools that are going to be involved in the programme.

What was the best moment in your career?

Getting the job here (at Musselburgh Grammar).

And what was the worst moment?

When I had a very difficult third-year English class in Garthamlock - we were just not clicking at all. It was a really challenging time because you're left thinking, "Is it me? Am I not pressing the right buttons with these pupils?" It's one of these crisis-in-confidence moments. But we got through it and they did really well at the end of the day.


Born: Hamilton, 1955

Education: Airdrie Academy; University of Glasgow, MA Hons in English and history; Jordanhill

Career: Eastbank Academy and Shawlands Academy, both Glasgow; Garthamlock Secondary (assistant principal teacher of English); Lenzie Academy (PT English); Kilsyth Academy (assistant headteacher); Hermitage Academy (depute headteacher); Musselburgh Grammar (headteacher since 2003).

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