Robert Hair was 38 and a company director when, on a tour of northern Thailand, he decided to change his life.
Mr Hair (pictured below) arrived home in January 1991; by June, he had handed in his notice and by October he was training to be a teacher in Glasgow. He even sold his house “because a poor student can’t afford a big mortgage”.
“The business wasn’t destroying me but it was dragging me down,” he says.
Mr Hair, now a primary headteacher in Moray, graduated in 1995 and by 2002 had secured his first headship. This week, as he takes over as president of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, he is issuing a call for headteachers to emphasise the positives about the top job, in a bid to ease the recruitment crisis.
Seven councils in the north of Scotland, including Moray, where Mr Hair is based, recently called for a national taskforce to tackle teacher recruitment problems, with Highland revealing this month that it was considering axing up to 50 headteacher posts and increasing the number of shared headships after failing to attract quality candidates.
“Current headteachers need to make the job sound more appealing for aspiring heads and stop dwelling on the negatives,” Mr Hair says. “There are negatives but these are outweighed by the positives – [such as] getting to work with families and young people, and seeing them develop and grow.”
However, this rallying cry to his peers is tempered by the warning that the weight of paperwork is in danger of turning heads into managers, as opposed to leaders of learning.
In some authorities, the national approach to improving the well-being of children – under the “Getting it right for every child” banner – is leading to “mountains of paperwork to track every child”, Mr Hair says. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act, with its provision for a guardian or “named person” for every child, has the potential to exacerbate things further, he notes, given that headteachers are set to become the named person for the children in their schools.
“Do you want headteachers that are managers or headteachers doing the job they are supposed to do, which is leading the learning?” he says.
“Today, I’ve done a classroom observation, met with my pupil council and my eco council, and had a monthly ‘chat’n’chill’ with the parents. I need to do these things to make sure the school is moving in the right direction and the children are getting the best possible experience. If you can’t do these things, it’s the children that suffer at the end of the day.”
Mr Hair also hits out at the government’s plans to force aspiring heads to pay £1,000 to undertake the new Into Headship qualification, which will become mandatory in 2018. “We don’t ask nurses or doctors to pay for their own development,” he says.
Since becoming a teacher, Mr Hair has worked in a number of authorities, including Falkirk, Fife, Perth and Kinross. His first headteacher post was as a teaching head at the 130-pupil strong Portessie Primary, before moving 30 miles down the road to his current post at Kinloss Primary.
It seemed he might become a teaching head once again when the roll at Kinloss plummeted from 280 to 127 pupils, following the defence review in 2010 and the withdrawal of the RAF from the local base. “My staff team were being compulsorily transferred because there were no classes for them to teach,” Mr Hair says. “So the team I had inherited and developed over four years was being disintegrated.”
With the arrival of the Royal Engineers at Kinloss Barracks, the school roll has been revitalised. But Mr Hair’s longest-serving teacher has been in post for just four years.
He says: “That is good in some ways but we have lost that knowledge of armed-service families – how they move around and how to work in a school where you start and end the year with 250 children but, during the course of that eight months, 75 children will be new.”
To unwind, Mr Hair likes to garden and makes jam from the fruit he grows; as much as 200lbs of it a year is sold for charity.
He has never regretted leaving business behind him, even though he still earns less than he did in 1991. “I did not come into teaching for the holidays or the salary,” he says. “I live for my job and it’s not an easy job or stress free, but it’s a different kind of stress.
“As a company director, there was a workforce of 120-150 guys, so you knew that if something went wrong, all these people would be unemployed. Here, it’s more about the pressure you put on yourself for the benefit of the kids.”