Rehana Shanks has four children, aged 2-11; she is a headteacher and she is studying for a doctorate in education. Last month, she also became the new chair of the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (Belmas), a group mainly made up of school leaders and academics interested in how research and evidence can improve practice.
The doctorate is a selfish pursuit, says Shanks, who has been head of Dean Park Primary in Edinburgh for five years. After having had children, she realised she could no longer socialise in the manner that she used to, nor even take exercise in the way that she had done previously. But she decided that endless hours in front of soap opera EastEnders was not an inevitability and instead chose to study.
“It is about the pursuit of a worthwhile life,” says Shanks. “I was fairly limited because I had kids and the children were small. But it’s about trying to keep hold of that golden thread – something that is about you as a person.
“For me, it was about doing something worthwhile, that would pay off in different areas of my life.”
Shanks has completed a master’s in educational management and leadership, and, after becoming head of Dean Park in 2013, she dual-qualified as a secondary drama teacher. Now she is in the fifth year of her doctorate and has 24 months to finish it.
Shanks’ appetite for professional learning makes her better at her job, but it also benefits her kids, she says, given that up until the summer, three of them attended her school.
Shanks joined Dean Park in 2003 as depute and became head 10 years later (see CV, below). When her eldest child, James, who heads off to secondary later this month, started at the school, Shanks was already well established there. “It’s nice to be in the same environment as your children,” she says. “You don’t necessarily see them, but it’s nice to know they’re there.”
At the beginning, Shanks started engaging in professional learning to become a better teacher – she had no ambition to progress beyond the classroom in her career and expected that she would focus on being a homemaker. But, as she became a more skilled practitioner, opportunities presented themselves and she started to climb the career ladder.
The knowledge Shanks has accumulated, combined with the networks she has established, mean she is willing to take risks and try new things in her school, she says. For instance, there are four faculties at Dean Park – health, enterprise, citizenship and ecology – as well as curriculum-leader posts, all of which are features more usually associated with secondary schools.
The Scottish government wants to devolve more power to heads. It recently decided against legislating to achieve this goal, saying it was giving councils a year to devolve more control over education budgets, the curriculum and staffing to schools (“Scotland’s Education Bill is shelved”, 26 June). But if the government really wants heads to be empowered, says Shanks, it needs to give school leaders more space and funding for high-quality professional learning. Without it, headteachers will have neither the knowledge nor the confidence to plough their own furrows, she believes.
“I would not have been able to make the choices I have made had it not been for the learning I have done,” says Shanks. “I wouldn’t have been brave enough.”
Her studies have been carried out using her own time and money. The cost has run into thousands although she shies away from putting a figure on it, joking that she does not want to provoke the ire of her husband, and simply says that it would have paid for “several trips to the Algarve and several sets of golf clubs”.
Shanks acknowledges the “good work” of the Scottish College for Educational Leadership, and that teachers can now get a “good whack” of master’s study paid for.
But, despite this, she still believes that academic study remains undervalued in the teaching profession.
Shanks is only the second headteacher to become Belmas chair in the body’s 40-year history. The last head to hold the position was Colin Russell, her old boss and former head of Dean Park Primary.
She has only been chair for a few weeks, but has already offered reassurance to teachers, not just from Scotland but from around the world, that doing doctorate-level study is worthwhile.
Shanks adds: “Anything beyond a master’s can be deemed to be fluff and just unnecessary. But the more you learn, the more you realise just how little you actually know. Also, schools are about learning so it’s good to remember what it’s like to be a learner.
“I’ve experienced failure and had to redo things. It’s not been an easy process.”