Scotland’s education system is in the best shape it has been for at least 40 years, despite budget cuts and anxieties over curricular reform, a leading education figure claims.
Jim Thewliss, the new general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (SLS), says that, in spite of ongoing concerns, different aspects of a child’s schooling are beginning to knit together in a way that he has never seen before.
“Within the 40 years I’ve been in it, for the first time there’s a coherence starting to creep into the system,” says Mr Thewliss (pictured, left), who has taken over from Ken Cunningham at SLS after 18 years as headteacher of Dundee’s Harris Academy.
And the impact is already evident: school-leavers, Mr Thewliss says, are better educated and better qualified than he was at their age, and are more rounded individuals who are “able to take on the world”.
His career has encompassed many reforms, all of which have been implemented “quite bittily”, he says. When the school-leaving age was raised around the time he entered teaching in the 1970s, “the profession was just told to get on with it”.
But now teachers are guided by “three major pillars of what a sound educational system is”: Curriculum for Excellence; the Getting it Right for Every Child policy, which is used to create support systems for children where needed; and the 2011 Donaldson report, which emphasises teacher professionalism.
“I’m a huge, huge optimist – I have to be, I’m a Motherwell supporter,” Mr Thewliss says. “Yeah, we’re under financial pressure, we’re under manpower pressure, but if the structure is sound, if we all know the system we are working in and are confident in it, then that relieves a huge stress and tension.”
‘A different world’ for heads
Mr Thewliss believes school leadership is “much more complex” than ever before. His own headteacher at Motherwell’s Dalziel High School, the inspirational J K Scobbie, continued to do some classroom teaching alongside his leadership role. But today’s headteachers operate in “a different world” where that is not possible.
Mr Thewliss backs the increasingly popular idea in Scottish education that every teacher should be a leader, but he believes that a huge responsibility still rests with the headteacher.
“The role of the headteacher has expanded,” he says. “It’s all right saying there are leaders out there – yes, there are – but there has to be somebody who coordinates all the bits and pieces of the three pillars to make sure that kids are getting the best deal.”
SLS has changed a lot, too. Once known as the Headteachers’ Association of Scotland, its headteacher members are now easily outnumbered by other senior members of staff. While SLS still acts as a troubleshooting representative body, it is now also defined by the “huge, huge” range of CPD it offers, he says. But one long-running problem that refuses to go away is recruitment to headteacher posts. SLS has not compiled statistics in recent years but anecdotal evidence suggests “significantly fewer people” are applying for jobs than was the case five to 10 years ago.
The “job sizing toolkit” that determines a headteacher’s salary has been a bone of contention since its introduction more than a decade ago. “The number of tasks and complexity [of the headteacher’s job] have increased over that time, the number of leaders in schools has decreased, and we’re still dealing with a job sizing toolkit which is not fit for purpose,” he says.
Many schools go long spells with no permanent headteacher, a situation he likens to the temporary manager of a football club who, because they are not a permanent fixture, fails to get money for new players or gain the confidence of players.
“Schools are exactly the same,” Mr Thewliss insists. “If you’ve to stand up in front of your staff and say, ‘This is the direction that I want the school to go in’, then they must have confidence that you are able to lead them – and, more importantly, will be there next week to do it.”
CV: Jim Thewliss
Born in Motherwell in 1953, Jim Thewliss studied geography at the University of Glasgow. He met his wife of 36 years, Ann, as a probationer teacher. They have two children: Alison, SNP MP for Glasgow Central; and Graeme, a student support officer at the University of Strathclyde.
2015 General secretary, School Leaders Scotland
1997-2015 Headteacher, Harris Academy, Dundee
1993-97 Depute headteacher, Wallace High, Stirling
1991-93 Assistant headteacher, Carluke High
1989-91 Assistant rector, Perth High
1985-89 Principal geography teacher, Perth High
1976-85 Geography teacher, Braidhurst High, Motherwell