Female school leaders can improve pupils’ attainment

9th March 2018 at 00:00
Councils are brushing off their responsibility to hire more female headteachers

In 2009, the school I was teaching at in Edinburgh appointed its first ever female headteacher. I was 25 and in my first job out of probation. I remember the portraits of former rectors that hung in the assembly hall. All the great men in the school’s great history, with their names etched into the wooden panels below. Glowering down on staff and pupils alike, stuffy academic gowns draped over their shoulders and not a smile between them.

Nationally, it’s clearly not an acceptable situation that we continue to have gender disparity in senior educational roles (“Glass ceiling ‘firmly intact’ in schools”, Tes Scotland, 19 January). First minister Nicola Sturgeon has committed to a 50-50 gender-balanced cabinet. It should signal intent to other publicly-run institutions. Local councils should be sitting up – particularly in the current climate.

The situation in Fife is one of the worst in the country. At the last count, there are only four female headteachers in its 18 secondary schools. Shortly after my election in 2016, I raised this directly with Fife Council, which has ultimate responsibility for recruitment, but the matter was brushed away. When only 22 per cent of headteachers in Fife’s secondary schools are women – compared to 40 per cent nationally, with a workforce comprised of more than 60 per cent women – it’s difficult to see how it can defend itself.

If the council were doing enough to support women into leadership roles, you’d expect these figures to change. Stubbornly, it does not. And so you have a situation in Fife whereby there are still a number of schools – including the one I attended – that have only ever had a male headteacher.

Think about what message that sends to staff. Think about what message that sends to pupils: “You can’t be what you can’t see,” as it’s often said.

The availability of promoted posts has arguably shrunk in recent years, as councils used the framework of Curriculum for Excellence to justify a shift to faculty heads or curriculum leaders, thereby saving money. But that has also removed a stepping stone to promotion.

Standing out

To be considered for one of these “bigger” posts, you have to stand out – it’s not enough to have run the S3 London trip or to have marked for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). For example, I took up a secondment to Education Scotland as a development officer. That enabled me to go forward in applying for middle-leadership roles, but my friends who had families were more restricted in being able to do so. That limited their opportunities to progress.

As we know, the bulk of families’ childcare responsibilities continue to fall on women. So, when faced with a choice between continuing as a class teacher or becoming the head of a huge faculty, I understand why so many of my friends, particularly those who have young children, have opted to stay put.

When I was a faculty head, I was in charge of five different subject areas. The ridiculous bureaucracy associated with that role largely had nothing to do with teaching. I’m glad the Scottish education secretary, John Swinney, acted swiftly to cut that burden and to remove outcome and standards for National 5 and Higher assessments.

Returning to the dreary men in their dreary portraits, in that same school the regular bulletin used to contain a “quote for the day”, which registration teachers would read aloud every morning.

'Ask a woman'

On International Women’s Day, I remember submitting a quip attributed to Margaret Thatcher – by no means a politician I would aspire to be like – which read, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

Think about how things get done in your school – because inequalities in leadership at the top are replicated in staffing throughout our institutions.

I’m talking about the cleaners, the dinner ladies and the classroom assistants. I’m talking about the women – and it is usually women – in the offices of our schools, who earn the least and arguably work the hardest.

When we see women in our schools, they are too often trapped in some of the lowest-paid jobs. They are segregated because of their gender. Think about how many female jannies you’ve encountered.

In 1974, Rena Watt became Scotland’s first ever female headteacher of a comprehensive secondary school, at Knightsridge Secondary in Drumchapel. Tes Scotland profiled her two years later, describing her as “the lady who made history”. Ms Watt went on to become the head of Bannerman High in Glasgow’s East End. She was a trailblazer, smashing the glass ceiling of Scotland’s macho educational past.

The importance of strong leadership in education cannot be underestimated. It is even more crucial in light of the Scottish government’s drive to close the attainment gap. As the first minister demonstrates every day, strong leadership isn’t about gender – it’s an avenue which should be open to the majority of women who make up the teaching workforce. Our councils need to wake up. If events around the world in recent months have taught them anything, it should be this: women’s voices matter.

Jenny Gilruth is MSP for Mid-Fife and Glenrothes and a former principal teacher of social subjects

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