Smarties lead to smart thinking

2nd January 2009 at 00:00
Carole Ford, president of Headteachers' Association of Scotland, tells the TESS about the organisation's ambitious expansionist plans

Carole Ford is only the second woman to become president of the association representing secondary headteachers in its 72-year history.

She takes up the presidential post as School Leaders Scotland - the renamed Headteachers' Association of Scotland - embarks on ambitious expansionist plans, opening its ranks to faculty heads, bursars and senior educationists in bodies such as Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The signs are that she will be as combative as any of her male predecessors. Her reputation is of a headteacher who is not afraid to speak her mind, but in defence of just causes. She has an incisive mind, able to see the difference between the "smart answers" a teacher might get from a class and the answers that reveal "real learning", says one colleague.

She does not come from a teaching dynasty, but showed the signs of being a born teacher at a very early age. "Even at primary school, I used to tutor children for their IQ tests. Their parents would give me sweets. I would do it for a tube of Smarties!" she admits.

Mrs Ford has always believed that education was the most important thing in the developed world, but chose to enter teaching because she liked explaining things to people. At university, she had to choose between maths and languages. Maths won.

"Mathematics is one of the best subjects to teach," she believes. "It's a really satisfying subject. The whole world is in mathematics - history, art, the foundation of science. You can link developments in maths to the development of civilisations.

"It's also a subject where you can see the lights going on in pupils' minds - that's really satisfying if someone is struggling and then they get it. There's more of that in maths than some other subjects which are more content-based."

For a teacher as passionate about maths as she is, the results of the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study survey (Timss) - which ranked Scotland's performance in maths and science at P5 and S2 below average in the international rankings - must be particularly worrying.

"My personal view is that, to some extent, we have been focusing on skills which are not necessarily directly relevant to things like maths and science," she argues. "We have been focusing on enterprise skills, presentation skills and boosting confidence. These skills are important, but a balance has to be struck.

"Knowledge and understanding are critical. Schools have been delivering what they have been asked to deliver, and perhaps the balance has not been what it should have been. The caveat is: how reliable are these results? They're not totally scientific, but they are certainly an indicator that the balance has not been right."

Mrs Ford does not believe that the advent of A Curriculum for Excellence will materially alter the maths curriculum. "I don't fear for the maths curriculum anything like the way I fear for some other areas. We need to be wary of what standards we expect pupils to achieve, but the actual curriculum never really alters."

Science is quite a different issue, however. When she first read the draft science outcomes in her school office, she laughed out loud, she says. "One of the outcomes was: `I can explain the expanding universe'. There are physicists who can't do that!"

Mrs Ford is one of those headteachers who tries to keep her hand in when it comes to classroom teaching. She has one class assigned to her and does "please takes" as well. After 20 years of writing maths textbooks for Heinemann, she wrote her final one only a couple of months ago. The activity has helped to keep her feet on the ground, she believes.

If senior management staff don't go into classrooms and work with pupils, they forget how difficult it is, she argues.

"I have always maintained that the problem in education is that very often, the strategic thinking is not based closely enough on the reality of what it is like in the classroom," she adds. "It is not that teachers do not see the big picture, but that the strategists and policy-makers do not see the small picture."

One of the biggest policy changes to hit secondary education since Higher Still is the Government's plans to revamp the qualifications system. The SLS recommended in its response to the proposals for the "next generation of exams" that, rather than focusing tests for numeracy and literacy on S3 or S4, it would make more sense to target them on pupils in P7.

Ms Ford was clearly one of the drivers behind this proposal - advocating diagnostic testing for reading and writing skills as early as P3. "By the age of 15, problems are endemic. We need to be looking, particularly in the case of literacy, at a much earlier stage."

The random-sampling approach of the Scottish Survey of Achievement is "not helpful to schools and teachers", she feels. Her preference is for the more rigorous testing regimes implemented by authorities such as East Renfrewshire.

There may be some who feel that the leader of an organisation for secondary heads should stick to that sector and leave primary education to the AHDS. Mrs Ford does not see it that way.

"At SLS, we want make our voices heard to the greatest extent we can," she declares. "We feel we really know about secondary education, not just from the theoretical point of view, because we know and understand adolescents individually and in groups.

"We also know a reasonable amount about primary education, because we are interested and because we deal with the products of it."

CAROLE FORD

Age: 55

School: Williamwood High and Eastwood High

University: Glasgow University, Jordanhill College, and Wisconsin-Madison University

Headteacher: Kilmarnock Academy since 1997

Interests: reading and foreign travel - but definitely not sport.

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