‘Like most teachers I want to make a positive difference to our young people’

Kelso High School Rector Ruth McKay.
Kelso High School Rector Ruth McKay.

IF the Scottish Government’s new Curriculum for Excellence for schools was a ship, it would be an aircraft carrier or super tanker in terms of its scale of importance to teachers and school pupils.

And the person at the helm of this particular educational revolution at Kelso High School, is rector Ruth McKay. She says it is a massively important time for schools, their staff and pupils.

“Curriculum for Excellence is about generational change. There hasn’t been as anything as big as this, certainly in the time that I’ve been teaching and probably in all the time I’ve been in education, including my own schooling,” she told TheSouthern this week in an interview to mark her first year in charge at Kelso.

A native of Stirlingshire and an Aberdeen University graduate in English, Ruth has a wide range of experience in teaching and education, with her first post a temporary position teaching English in Fife in 1995.

A year later she was on the staff of Kirkwall Grammar School in Orkney, where she also taught English and later added a guidance role to her duties.

A national secondment to examine how progress and quality in education was measured was followed by a stint, starting in 2004, working in East Lothian Council’s education department.

That lasted three years and in 2007, Ruth took up a depute rector’s job in Dunbar. The job meant a move to a new home in Lauder for Ruth and her husband and then, just a year ago, she made the switch to the top job at the 600-plus pupil Kelso High School, where she had the daunting task of filling the very large shoes left by retiring and highly popular rector, Charlie Robertson.

Ruth admits she did not grow up with a dream to be a teacher.

“When I was in the latter stages of secondary school, then throughout university, I’d done quite a bit of community drama. I’d worked with younger children, I’d done a bit of work with adults with learning disabilities around community drama and just really enjoyed that experience.

“So when it came to making a decision after university, that was what I wanted to do.”

Ruth says her experience living and working in Orkney is similar to what she has found in Kelso and the Borders.

“I loved Orkney. Like Kelso, there’s a very strong sense of community and I got involved in lots of things – more music, drama and quiz teams, but also fishing.”

Ruth says her peripatetic career as a teacher was never something she planned to have.

“I didn’t ever set out to move round the country – it was a combination of family circumstances and opportunities. My husband and I are very settled in the Borders. So I can honestly say I have no plans to move.

“I’ve seen the difference that a strong community like Kelso can make – everyone, whether young or old, is richer for being part of that. And like most teachers, I want to make a positive difference to our young people and their families. The world our young folk are going into is changing more quickly than ever before – we need to help them become more effective, independent learners to give them the best chance of success and happiness in their futures.”

Ruth says the past 12 months at Kelso High School have been mainly about familiarising herself with her new job.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know people, the school and its history. We’re very lucky in Kelso to have a school which is so much a part of its community, so it’s also been important for me to get to know some of the organisations and individuals who make up that community.

“You have to learn background to situations and developments, and find out how things have got to the particular point you’re picking them up at, because all of that has a bearing on how you take things forward.”

As for her predecessor, Ruth admits Charlie is a hard act to follow.

“When it comes to Charlie’s legacy – well, you don’t need me to tell you about that.

“Of course, its been daunting taking over from someone so well known and established, and Charlie’s continued to be a real friend and support to the school.

“I don’t think anything surprised me when I first came here. I was very aware of the strength of the community and for me that was one of the big attractions, because I think where you have a community with a strong sense of cohesion, there are all sorts of benefits for education.

“Youngsters who develop a strong sense of identity and take a pride in where they are from, do better educationally.”

As for the calibre of pupils at Kelso, Ruth is unstinting in her praise of them and the teaching staff.

“Young folk in Kelso are superb. As a teacher, as you might expect me to say, I think a lot of the time young people generally get a pretty poor press. But when we hear about rising rates of youth crime and all these sorts of things, what you’re hearing about is actually a tiny minority.

“It gives people who don’t have any immediate contact with young people themselves, a quite different impression.

“I think that’s a shame and there’s a job to be done in celebrating all the good things our youngsters are doing.

“We’ve got tremendous levels of achievement in Kelso, lots of sporting success, lots of involvement in music and drama, all positive things.

“Academically, one of the things the recent inspection report found was that across a vast majority of measures, Kelso High School is doing at least as well as, if not better than, certainly the local comparisons and at national level.

“But most importantly from my point of view, in the majority of measures, we’re performing better than our comparator schools. These are schools which HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools) says are operating in a similar context and they stand some comparison.”

As for the controversial Curriculum for Excellence programme, Ruth believes it is the way ahead for the future.

“Everyone will be aware we’re at a very important time in Scottish education. A lot of the challenges facing Kelso High School are challenges common across all secondary schools, not just those in the Borders.

“We’re at a very important stage of the introduction of the new curriculum and next year, in some ways, will be the real big year within secondary schools in that, for the first time, we haven’t been following Standard Grade courses in S3, so it’s a period of really intense development for anyone involved in education.

“Our first group that will go through this is currently in second year. I have to take my hat off to the commitment of our staff that we have at Kelso. We’re very lucky we’ve got a really hard working, committed, talented staff and I really do rely on them at time of change like this.”

Ruth says the Curriculum for Excellence offers teachers huge opportunities because it allows them to respond to the needs of young people in their own communities.

“I think the big thing about the Curriculum for Excellence is not what we do, but how we do it. It gives us the freedom to develop things in a way which is going to maximise the relevance and the impact for our young people.

“The Curriculum of Excellence, at its heart, is about effective learning and teaching and we know that we have a lot of strength already in Kelso, so I’d say we’re building on a firm foundation.”