11 Aug '13

News Talking heads: I'm taking on my first headship at the Royal Blind School

Elaine Brackenridge tells Emily Drabble about her own unpromising educational beginnings and why she is so excited to become head of the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh

Did you set out to be a headteacher?

Not at all. I didn't get my own education until much later in life. I left school with three O grades in my standards. I certainly didn't have enough self belief to think I could go to university.

Why do you think your early education wasn't a success?

I didn't really attend school that much and often missed my homework. My mum was a single parent and a wonderful mother but she wasn't educated and we didn't put much value on education in my community in Easterhouse, an area of deprivation in Glasgow. The idea of getting qualifications and going to university was outside our experience. It's strange because I was always in the top group at primary school but somehow that didn't translate to thinking I would achieve academically. I left school in 1976 and was married by 1978.

So how did you become a teacher?

I became a parent helper in the school that my three children were attending. It was after organising my son's seventh birthday party that I was encouraged by friends who were teachers themselves to think about becoming a teacher. I explained I had no qualifications and wouldn't be able to. I thought I was a dunce, that's a word I would never use now but I used that about myself then. But I discovered I could do my highers through open learning at Motherwell college. I was able to study for free as my husband, as a careworker, wasn't earning a high wage. Doing my highers was a revelation to me. I read Shakespeare for the first time and I found I loved it. Everything I did was a real thrill. I was a late convert to the power of education and it hit me hard. I did an access course and then a teaching degree at Jordanhill.

Did you plan to go into the area of special needs teaching?

I'd done a component of special education needs (SEN) in my training and really enjoyed it but going into SEN was pure chance. I got a supply job at St Vincent's School for the Blind and Deaf in Glasgow and it turned into a permanent one. I learnt on the job. I started learning braille straight away. I found it so stimulating to be so creative in my teaching and to work with different age groups in one class. The whole school was an inspiration to me and I still keep in touch with many of the children I taught there.

There have been a lot of changes in special needs education particularly regarding inclusion, and the school closed in 1998. I got a job at Kelvin School for multiple disabilities (now merged into Hazelwood school) and then started working for North Lanarkshire Visual Impairment Service based in a mainstream school called Knowetop where I taught braille, worked with families who had just had babies who had been born blind and assessed vision.

How important has professional development in your life and teaching?

It's been vital. After coming so late to education I have a real passion to keep learning. One of the most important parts of that was becoming a Chartered Teacher which is the equivalent of doing a master's degree. I was looking for a next step and so when the job as depute head at the Royal Blind School I decided to apply and got the job. Now I'm in a leadership position I'm able to really encourage my staff, including classroom assistants, in continuous professional development (CPD) and the fact that I'm not so long out of the classroom myself really helps.

You are now the head of the Royal Blind School, can you tell us a bit about your school?

I have just become head after almost five years as depute. The Royal Blind school provides specialist education and term time residential care for young people aged up to 19 years who are blind or visually impaired (VI), including those who have complex, multiple disabilities and visual impairment (MDVI). In the past we have had students who have had no other disabilities apart from visual impairment and have achieved really great results in highers and gone on to study at university but now the majority of our students have other support needs.

Why has that changed?

More and more blind and VI students are going to local schools and we are for inclusion as long as they get support – part of our remit is to provide that support and complement inclusion. We offer outreach services to lots of different schools.

What's on your to do list for the coming year in your new job?

There's a big redevelopment project to manage. We're merging our two sites and undergoing a major redevelopment of our Canann Lane campus which will be finished in 2014. So there's a lot of work to do. The merger of the two school campuses is part of a long-term plan which will see the school become even more highly specialised in its work with children and young people who are blind and have other educational support needs.

I want to make sure these changes go as smoothly as possible and I've got a psychologist coming in to our inservice training to help support staff on the move. I want to listen carefully to my staff's concerns, to make sure the move isn't hard on them and to capture their vision of changes to the school.

We are also creating a new educational resource centre for the visual development so we can increase outreach and availability of resources such as large print and braille to mainstream schools with visually impaired students. I want to develop our existing links with LA and school and also establish new partnerships, particularly with FE colleges.

For me success is all about expectations and I have great ones for my students and my staff. I know there will be obstacles for my students and it's not easy but with a can do attitude everyone can achieve. I believe that every child should have the opportunity to learn, develop and be supported to achieve the best that they can.

Elaine Brackenridge is headteacher at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh.

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