After transforming the fortunes of Castleview pupils, Lindsey Watt is being marked out for future leadership role at council
SHE might not be an X Factor contestant, but Lindsey Watt is certainly on a journey.
Admittedly hers hasn’t taken her too far geographically – from Sciennes to Craigmillar.
But the headteacher’s move from one of Edinburgh’s most middle-class schools to the realities of drug abuse and educational drop-outs in one of the city’s most deprived areas was a great leap.
Yet her success at Castleview Primary – a place which had been struggling after the death of its headteacher and attempting to find its identity as it was created from the merging of three other schools, as well as having one of the city’s highest exclusion rates and free school meals uptake – has seen her marked out by council leaders as a leader of the future in the city’s education department.
Certainly she looks the part – heels, dress, Mulberry handbag, Gucci spectacles – but her enthusiasm for imparting the values that she holds dear are not for show. She has an evangelical zeal for transforming how the teaching profession approaches its job – and not even losing a kidney to cancer last year has managed to slow her down.
Now she’s also been seconded to the commission established to try and transform the fortunes of Castlebrae High School, recently saved from closure after a campaign by the local community.
“I am really positive about Craigmillar,” she says. “Yes, it suffers deprivation and has been hit terribly by the recession, but people there are always trying really hard to get on, struggling on benefits and trying to get work. They keep on going.
“But that daily struggle never gives them time to look ahead and think of the future. So the main problem I found when I arrived there was a poverty of ambition. That’s why it’s important to have quality leadership in these areas.”
She adds: “I was head at Sciennes and things were going well there and we were doing all the things that recognised it as a school of excellence. Then I went on the Columban Leadership Academy in 2003 and it changed everything.
“I was serving my school well but was I serving my whole community, the country even? It really made me think of the bigger picture. Was I really making a difference in the lives of others?
“When I saw the job at Castleview advertised it was as though there were flashing lights around it. I thought I could really do something to help them. It wasn’t a failing school but a school which was struggling because its wonderful headteacher had died in service, and I thought I had the skills which could help with that.”
Not that the parents at Sciennes were happy with her decision. Apparently a group of dads appealed to her to stay, but undeterred she encouraged them to help her out at Castleview instead. “I totally loved being at Sciennes but when I explained to the parents why I was going they understood. So they came and helped start a football team and spoke to Castleview parents about their involvement with their school, it was brilliant,” she says.
“It was difficult though in terms of the newness of the school – no-one else in Craigmillar had been there, there was no attachment within the community, no history, and the thing about Craigmillar is that people there are so strong on their history.”
Despite that, she says, on her first day at Castleview she was shocked to discover that the children didn’t study the history of Craigmillar Castle.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “When I was a class teacher in Winchburgh I remember we went to see Linlithgow Primary School take a tour around the palace. It was brilliant. So I approached Historic Scotland and asked if our kids could be tour guides at the castle.
“They gave us a chance and it gave us a school project which meant the whole school could get involved in the community. The P6 pupils study the castle in great depth and then they take children from all over Scotland around the place, dressed in period costume. It has been fantastic – and the school was a finalist in the Scottish Education Awards as a result.
“All of that gives the kids confidence in themselves – that people will listen to them – and pride in their school and community. It makes them high attaining, high achieving, gives them a feeling of ownership, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that attendance is up to 91 per cent. It also helps to project a successful Craigmillar.
“We also introduced new ways of keeping children in school so they didn’t feel they were abandoned if they were finding it difficult. We set up a teaching base where they could go to until they were ready to go back into the class again. So that took exclusions to zero. Putting a child out is not good for the child or the school.”
As well as trying to raise the achievements of pupils, Lindsey found that she also had to tackle the ambition of parents – many of whom felt their own educational or even criminal pasts stopped them from being involved with the school.
“There were problems in terms of meeting the requirements of Disclosure Scotland for some parents, but my view was that if it was in the past, that’s where it stayed. Also if they had a difficult attitude about schools because of their own experiences I brought them in to the school to see what we were doing, and say come and support your child so they don’t have the same experience as you.
“Don’t sit at home and thing negatively, think there’s nothing you can do to support your child, because that’s not the case.
“I have got such love and respect for the Craigmillar parents. They were very supportive about what I was trying to do. When I left, one mum said to me ‘who’s going to kick our backsides and tell us our children can be winners now, Ms Watt?’ and I just said ‘you are’. ‘But it’s hard’, she said. I said ‘You bet it is, but without that relentless focus on every child how are things going to get better?’” she laughs. “It has been pretty all-encompassing for me.”
So much so that she saw her marriage fall apart – and her health suffered too. “One of the Columban values is perseverance, which is hard because life can be hard. The break-up of my marriage in 2011 was a shock to me and then seven months later I was diagnosed with kidney cancer.
“But I felt it was my duty to my family and my school to show that when you have setbacks in life it is how you deal with them that defines you. I didn’t want to be seen as the ‘woman with cancer’ so I moved on with my life. Not that there weren’t times when I cried, and the parents and staff were amazing, a real support to me.”
Lindsey’s teaching career began in 1979 – though she admits that like many children she’d no real idea what she wanted to do while at school. “I went to work in a fertiliser factory when I was 16,” she laughs. “I soon realised that’s what I didn’t want to do with my life. So I went to night school to get qualifications and then went on to train as a teacher.”
The 55-year-old has worked in many Lothian primaries, and became headteacher at Abbeyhill before her move to Sciennes then Castleview.
“But when I was lying in the Western General, I thought about an approach I’d had from the council to undertake a new role to develop leadership within the city and use my skills differently. I knew it would be a wrench for me to leave the school but I thought perhaps I could have a wider impact on more children in Edinburgh by moving on.”
Lindsey is now on the board of the Columba 1400 charity and recently addressed the Princess Royal at a conference on leadership at Ardoch in Loch Lomond. “It’s taking me in a whole new direction,” she says.
“Including the Castlebrae commission. It hasn’t met yet but I’m wholly committed to Craigmillar. The problem it’s had with a falling roll is because it’s been under threat from closure for so long that parents have sent their children elsewhere in case of disruption. That’s understandable.
“We need to get the children from Castleview and Niddrie Mill into Castlebrae, they are high achievers so Castlebrae’s attainment will rise. Securing its future should help with that and it’s got a great new headteacher – who’s also been through the Columban programme. I have a great belief it will turn around.”
Lindsey adds: “You know, being a headteacher is a really hard job, but you always have to remember you have power over the life chances of the children in your care. If you keep that at the heart of everything, then anything is possible.”