Ties in all directions

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
A lot is written about the pressures on class and headteachers, but what is the job of a depute head like nowadays?

By the time I arrive, the school looks deserted. I've missed the bell and everyone is in class, but fortunately Mrs Kerr, depute head at Kirkcaldy High, doesn't berate me. In fact, she doesn't even ask me where my tie is, although she asks that question a lot, mostly of first-year boys. I discover this as I shadow her on a dark December day.

It is almost a ritual greeting, the tie question, with each pupil responding in a similar vein with a shifty look, a shuffling of feet and a mumbled excuse.

Not a single pupil is rude to Mrs Kerr. Some even allow a cheeky grin to slide across their faces, knowing they've been caught red-handed. Sometimes she grins back.

Clearly Judith Kerr commands respect from these pupils, which is no mean feat when you consider they are among the worst behaved in the school. As head of discipline, she deals with them most.

It seems hard not to like Mrs Kerr with her bright, bustling enthusiasm and openness, but then I didn't skive off detention. As we talk in her office - where she spends little of her day - she explains it is just as well I didn't arrive earlier because she was pacifying an angry mother who was concerned that her daughter's drama class was not getting enough teaching.

(One of the two drama teachers is off sick.) Irate parents are just par for the course and Mrs Kerr is still looking ebullient after the confrontation. But then, she has been teaching for 31 years.

As we chat, a distressed-looking girl, wearing large hooped earrings and a sulky expression, appears at the open door. From the verbal torrent aimed at Mrs Kerr, I glean that the fourth-year pupil has been put out of class by her maths teacher because she didn't sit her Standard grade Credit prelim. We all troop off to see the teacher the girl was actually sent to, although she came to Mrs Kerr instead.

On the way upstairs the girl despairs, saying there's no point in sitting Credit because she couldn't even do the General paper. As a maths teacher, Mrs Kerr reassures her that not only is she capable of Credit maths, but that she will personally tutor her to make sure she leaves school with Higher maths.

Peering with a bashful smile from behind her hair, the girl is grateful for praise she's clearly not used to. I understand now why she defied her class teacher to see Mrs Kerr. During their chat, the pupil slipped off her earrings, in accordance with school rules, without being asked. She keeps them in her hand. She'll no doubt put them back in as soon as we leave, but it's a mark of her respect for the depute head.

Mrs Kerr says: "This girl is an example of the kind of underachievement we can see in pupils who are actually academically very able. That's one of our biggest problems - raising aspirations."

She explains that Kirkcaldy is in a former mining area to which many workers flitted from Lanarkshire, only to watch the mines they came to work in close down and their jobs disappear. "They are these children's grandparents. Some of the children are the only ones at home who get up and go out in the morning. We are dealing with third-generation unemployed."

However, underachievement is not a byword for Kirkcaldy High. Walking through the assembly hall, Mrs Kerr points out Chancellor Gordon Brown's name on the dux board.

Mrs Kerr was a pupil at the school and she met her husband (aged 13) at a school disco. Her parents were both pupils here and her mother was dux in 1936: "I'm in with the bricks, you see."

Kirkcaldy High has about 1,250 pupils and this year's intake have proved to be a handful. Mrs Kerr is giving the first-year pupils lessons in manners, to make her life - and theirs - easier.

She tries to instil the importance of listening and taking turns to speak.

She explains to them that the biggest employer in Kirkcaldy is a call centre and that if they want a job there, they must drop the Fife colloquial "ye ken" and "ae" instead of "you know" and "yes".

A short session with a much smaller group of first years follows this.

These six have particularly poor behaviour and are struggling to settle in.

One boy was excluded from nearby Balwearie High in his first week, and clearly struggles to take responsibility for his own actions.

"Nothing's ever your fault, is it?" Mrs Kerr asks wearily. By the look on his face, he doesn't understand the irony. To him, nothing is ever his fault. He may not last long in the school.

This is followed by an IT class, then overseeing a lunch-time detention and a patrol of the school. Lunch has to be left on her desk for later consumption.

A call on the radio, which keeps her in contact with the school office at all times, alerts us that there is trouble at the golf course. Some pupils have been reported throwing stones at the club windows. Preliminary investigations reveal it may just be high-spirited games involving pine cones but orders are made for a CCTV camera to monitor the area for a more thorough investigation later.

In the afternoon, after a few bites of her salad, Mrs Kerr chases up those who failed to appear at lunchtime detention.

Most of the pupils are looking forward to going home soon, but not Mrs Kerr. She is going to a nearby college where a pupil might be winning an award for her performance on a work-shadowing scheme.

While she's telling me she won't get home before nine o'clock tonight, the radio bursts into voice again. There's a crisis upstairs and she disappears. It turns out to be a storm in a teacup.

The bell rings and various colleagues call in with a variety of queries - probationers' forms are sorted and it transpires that double the order of Christmas cards has been printed. Mrs Kerr, her lunch by now abandoned, is off to a senior management meeting and I make a feeble excuse and follow the pupils out the door.

As I walk through the car park it's nearly five o'clock and, although mine is the only car remaining in the visitors' car park, I notice the staff car park is still full.

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