What happened at Clackmannan?

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Last term the headteacher of Clackmannan Primary was suspended from duty. In the week that the HMI report on the school is to be published, Seonag MacKinnon finds out what went wrong, and what steps have been taken to improve the school. And, in an exclusive interview, the head at the centre of the affair gives her side of the story

Her Majesty's inspectors are about to lift the lid on why Clackmannanshire suddenly suspended one of its headteachers in May and embarked on radical reform of the school where she taught.

Teachers were shaken by the announcement that Rena Black of Clackmannan Primary was absent indefinitely. Such dramatic action in the past would have carried suggestions of rioting pupils or serious staff misconduct. With the publication next Tuesday (September 9) of the HMI report, it will become clear that the smallest authority in Scotland has simply taken the lead in enforcing the much talked about crackdown on poor educational standards.

It is widely expected that in the report inspectors will confirm that the school has lost its way dueto a well-meaning but flawed approach to management. Mrs Black is believed to have received "unsatisfactory'' - the lowest possible grading - for leadership and for assessment and direction of children's work. In 12 other measures the school is believed to be judged only fair. There are eight "goods'' but not a single "very good''.

The report is also expected to highlight many positive aspects of the school, such as committed, hard-working staff and a well-run infant department, but to spell out serious shortcomings, such as a fall in children's level of achievement in higher reaches of the school.

However, contrary to newspaper reports in the wake of Mrs Black's suspension, the report is expected to stop short of condemning Clackmannan Primary as a sink school where children run wild and bullying is rife.

Clackmannanshire's education director, Keir Bloomer, refuses to apologise for the authority's tough line. "The threshold for intervention used to be in my view outrageously high," he says. "We should be prepared to intervene in schools, not just when money goes missing or a boy is assaulted.'' His first loyalty, he says, is to the children at the school and then to their parents. Had he allowed school unrest to simmer away for another 10 years the education of a further 500 to 600 children would have been blighted.

As for potential criticism that his action has undermined an already badly demoralised profession, Mr Bloomer - a former deputy general secretary of EIS -maintains the reverse is true. "Ultimately the esteem in which the teaching profession is held, probably even the financial value placed upon them, is dependent on the public thinking a good job is being done," he says.

Clackmannanshire's action reflects a new climate of opinion in Scotland. This has been partly stimulated by recent international research on maths and English and HMI publications suggesting that Scotland does not have the education system it thought it had. Parents who have been encouraged by government to take more of an interest in their children's education have also contributed to the change in mood. And the wider community, including business, is calling for greater accountability.

Mr Bloomer does not hesitate to rattle cages. "There is a complacency about the Scottish educational establishment, thriving on this myth that Scotland has world-class education. For the first time we now have a dent in that confidence and some self-criticism. I welcome this.'' If other educational authorities follow Clackmannanshire's lead in tackling failing schools, suspension will not be the only possible form of action. Clackmannan Primary became top priority for the area's new summer school, which helps under-achieving children to make up ground. A new maths programme has been given immediate and full funding. Extra clerical support is in place and, most significantly of all, one of the most experienced educationists in Scotland is in situ.

Glenda White, a former college lecturer and chief inspector of Strathclyde, may in effect be a one-woman hit squad, but she is remarkably popular in the school community. Teachers, pupils and parents all seem to speak of her with approval. White after Black seems to be day after night.

Mr Bloomer, who worked with Miss White at Strathclyde, persuaded her to delay her retirement to come to Clackmannan. One of her first exercises was to ask children to make a list of all the positive points about their school. Teachers also found themselves in the unfamiliar situation of being consulted. The result of Miss White's work is a plan of action which seems to mirror points highlighted by HMI. She has done the spadework which will make the new head's task nowhere near as daunting as the HMI report is likely to suggest.

As Mr Bloomer says: "Thanks to Glenda, there is an opportunity for any reasonably good headteacher to come up after a year, smelling of roses. '' Certainly the new headteacher will inherit a staff among whom morale is surprisingly high, considering the public panning the school is likely to receive on Tuesday. Although there is some apprehension and uncertainty because no head is yet in place (deputy head Bruce Caldwell was standing in until last week), staff say they are happier now than they were 12 months ago.

However, they are also at pains to point out that Mrs Black had many positive attributes as a headteacher: she was friendly, hard working and an efficient administrator and budget controller. Pastoral care was excellent. If the child of a member of staff fell ill, she would unfailingly give permission for the staff member to go home. She was also generous with her sympathy and time if anyone in the school community suffered a bereavement.

Mr Bloomer also acknowledges that Mrs Black cared about her school: "No one is ever 100 per cent to blame when things go wrong, and Mrs Black was as concerned as anyone about the deterioration. She did not want to sweep matters under the carpet.'' Few in the school community wish to add to Mrs Black's misfortune by spelling out the less positive traits which led to the authority's request for her resignation and offer of a temporary job away from the chalk face to mark time before her 50th birthday and expected retirement early next year.

However, during discussions with people involved with the school, a picture gradually emerges of someone who found it difficult to delegate work and to listen to the views of others. "Out of her depth'' was one of the more pointed assessments.

Policies might have existed on paper, but they did not have the wholehearted support of staff, who had not been consulted. On discipline, for example, Mrs Black tried to "cater for the needs of the needy'' and "instil self-discipline''. But implementation of the policy was inconsistent.

Teachers frustrated by disruptive children in class would send them to the head's office - only to see her offer them tea. Indiscipline might also be repaid by the chance to kick a ball around outside for 10 minutes. A chance to cool off was the reasoning.

Although there were no outrageous incidents, discipline seems to have broken down progressively over the past year, disrupting the education of many children. When the teacher of a class with a significant rowdy element went on prolonged sick leave, a younger class suffered a succession of temporary teachers as their own teacher was nominated to deal with the disruptive class. Alastair Todd, chair of the school board, describes the younger children as "Israelites in the desert, wandering about leaderless. Parents were upset. "

Matters deteriorated to the point where Mrs Black lost the confidence of many parents and allegedly every one of her 16 teaching staff.

In the first eight months of its existence, the local authority received complaints from 10 parents and four teachers. HMI allegedly provided evidence that reform would be ineffectual without a change of head.

Mr Todd says that the sudden suspension and subsequent inaccurate press reports shook the entire village, but he does not regret the suspension. "At the end of the day, there are 350 kids' education at stake.'' He adds that he has been surprised and pleased by the council's "open, honest and thorough'' approach to the problems.

Mr Bloomer says: "The message from this is that this authority takes its responsibility seriously, even if on occasion it produces adverse publicity. ''


Rena Black told TESScotland she is trying not to feel bitter about her sudden fall from grace after 14 years as a head. "But my life has come to a halt, '' she says. "All of a sudden I am nothing. I love my school and I love my kids. Initially I stomped about the house. I have had to learn to be calm.'' Mrs Black says she was confused by her status when no disciplinary action had been taken against her and she had voluntarily relinquished her post. She claims her downfall was triggered by a small number of articulate parents: "There was a deliberate campaign to denigrate not just myself but the school."

She blames inconsistent discipline on the reluctance of a section of the staff to move with the times. "I used to be a strong disciplinarian, but I have been to lots of seminars and read papers and know about a more modern approach. People misconstrued my new ideas.'' She accepts she had "a couple of very difficult classes", but insists "we contained them. They were not running riot, at least not in the school building.'' The school community was reluctant to accept some of her ideas because she was not a local, claims Mrs Black, who comes from Glasgow but taught at California Primary in Falkirk before moving to Clackmannan in 1990.

"I'm basically a child person. If adults cannot handle any changes that is relatively unimportant.'' Asked about the impending HMI report, Mrs Black says: "I am sure that people reading about it who know about these things will realise that the school was probably no worse than many."

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, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today