The sun shines on the right-minded

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Given the unpredictability of the Scottish climate, the sun beats down on the annual conference of Catholic headteachers with spooky regularity. It is uncertain whether the intense heat which greeted the Catholic heads assembled at Crieff this year was indicative of divine approval of their calling or a foretaste of their eternal destination.

The television cameras were in attendance, perhaps in expectation of some sensational prenouncement from Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, or maybe because the name of Fergus McCann featured on the list of participants. This Fergus was not the wee man with the bunnet and the big pockets. The Fergus in question is director of the Good Shepherd Centre in Bishopton, a residential establishment for adolescent girls with behavioural problems.

His unassuming description of his work caused those in less challenging situations to count their blessings. Many of his charges were unable to return home on Christmas Day last year because of fears about the domestic circumstances awaiting them.

His establishment operates on a shift system, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Discussions of realignment of the school session have a hollow ring for Fergus and his colleagues.

Mr Galbraith tweaked the tails of heads by suggesting that teachers were not committed to their own professional development. A good journal, such as The Lancet for doctors, would help in keeping them up to date, he opined, to the obvious consternation of his audience.

In the next breath, he wondered why teachers were so enslaved to timetables that they cannot even be released "to let the gas man in".

If the good doctor considers these two ailments together, he may conclude that the same pressures which deny teachers relief even for domestic difficulties, deprives them of the time and opportunity to undertake self-enriching development.

This misconception was a disappointment to my colleagues who regard Mr Galbraith as a decent, down-to-earth chap who is genuinely committed to listening to teachers' views. In Holy Rood, he will find staff at all levels who are fullycommitted to professional development but who find that the exigencies of their daily work inhibit their ability to fulfil this aspiration.

Michael O'Neill, director of education for North Lanarkshire, combined musical snippets with an incisive critique of the restrictions on pupils' choice of subjects. His call for diversity and individuality contrasted sharply with the strait-jacketed approach inherent in curricular guidelines. His contribution was warmly applauded, especially by heads from North Lanarkshire.

The high point of the post-prandial reflection was a virtuoso performance of "The Londonderry Air" by Anne-Marie Fagan, newly installed president of the Catholic Headteachers' Association. Her impressive range demonstrated that she had firmly espoused Mr O'Neill's injunction to aim higher.

The premises were shared with an amalgam of dentists, whose demeanour suggested that they might be suffering from collective toothache. One or two gamely agreed to perform their party-pieces, with vigorous encouragement from Ben Conway, headteacher of St Columba's, Dunfermline, who was appointed compere for the proceedings by popular acclaim.

The much publicised spat between the Catholic Church and the Scottish Executive over training for headteachers was covered by John Oates of the Catholic Education Commission and Michael McGrath, headteacher of Our Lady's High school, Cumbernauld, on the second day. The philosophical and spiritual dimensions of the headteacher's role were considered to be paramount.

However, a letter from the minister categorically outlawed any specifically Catholic pathway for Catholic heads. Intriguingly, Donald Matheson, president of the Headteachers Association of Scotland, shared the misgivings of many delegates about the functional, utilitarian emphasis of the Scottish Qualification for Headship.

The sun was still beaming on Crieff as the heidies dispersed. There was excited talk of five-a-side football as a feature of next year's event, on an equal opportunities basis, of course.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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