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Meet Balwearie High School’s new head teacher Ali Mitchell (who has a cat called David Bowie)

The music teacher told us about learning how the school 'ticks', making the curriculum work for all, being in a rock band and her cats David Bowie and Paul Stanley

Headteacher of Balwearie High School in Kirkcaldy Alison Mitchell.
Ms Mitchell joined the Kirkcaldy secondary in October. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

One of the first things Balwearie High School’s new leader Ali Mitchell did in post was scrap the head teacher’s designated parking space.

A small change, but illustrative of how she sees her management style, as “co-creator” of her school’s vision rather than a boss who makes decisions in isolation.

She’s also spent her first few weeks getting to know the staff, pupils and community at the Kirkcaldy secondary and letting them get to know her.

And she plans to be a highly visible and accessible head teacher, ensuring her office door is open.

She said: “I’m down every morning at the front door, out and about at breaktime and lunchtime, at the gates.

“I said to the students ‘don’t be surprised if you see me down at the local shops seeing where you go and how you are getting on’!”

So if they don’t know already, it probably won’t take pupils long to discover their new head teacher’s passion for music – and that she is in a progressive rock band.

The head teacher’s office door is open to staff and students. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

Ms Mitchell, 43, began her career in 2002 as a music teacher at Leith Academy in Edinburgh, where she lives.

After becoming a principal music teacher then curriculum leader for expressive arts she was appointed depute head at Queensferry High School, near Edinburgh.

Her first headship was at Lasswade High School, in Midlothian, a school of a similar size to Balwearie which with 1,600 pupils is among the largest in Scotland.

Balwearie High, she said, very much reflects her as an individual and she got a “gut feeling” when she saw the vacancy advertised.

The values, the ethic, the community and demographic really chime with me.”

She said: “I’m very much a values leader.

“I heard so many positive things about the school, about the young people in particular, and about the staff that work here.

“Having done the research, I really felt it was a good fit, a ‘me’ kind of school where the values, the ethic, the community and demographic really chime with me.”

Balwearie’s values are ‘respect’, ‘creativity’, ‘equality’, ‘confidence’ and ‘achievement’.

Balwearie High School aims to ‘Reach’ high with its values. Image: Balwearie High School.

Having spoken to staff and pupil leaders before she even took up the post in October her first impressions were that there’s a real sense of pride in belonging to the school.

She said: “There seems to be a really strong community feel and people are proud to be part of a special community like Balwearie.”

Learning how the school “ticks” is her current focus before any changes are implemented, she says.

“The culture and ethos of a school sits with the head teacher.

“It’s an important job and it’s important to me that I get that right.

“I do learn from others, I listen and I try to take that on board. For me that’s really important in a leadership role.

“It’s not about making the decisions in isolation, it’s making the right decision at the right time at the right pace and for the right reasons.

“As a school and wider community we will decide what is best for us.”

‘Exciting time to be an education leader’

No big immediate changes are planned, she says, but one early shift will be better celebrating pupils’ achievements.

And of the head teacher’s parking space, she said: “That didn’t sit within my values.

“Every member of staff or person that comes in a car should be able to park where they want.”

Ms Mitchell takes the reins at Balwearie with great change looming in education in what she says is a “very exciting time to be a leader.” A review of qualifications could reduce reliance on exams and scrap them altogether for S4s in Scotland.

While for some pupils traditional qualifications like Highers are necessary for the careers they want to pursue, others want more vocational pathways.

And Ms Mitchell hopes to build on work-based learning options already available, which include cake craft, construction and barista qualifications.

She said: “I’ve never met a young person who doesn’t have aspiration or ambition just sometimes they need a wee hand to understand it, unlock it, recognise or realise it.

“It’s my job as a head teacher and our job as a community to be able to unlock that for young people.”

Balwearie High School has among the largest pupil rolls in Scotland. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson.

Like most schools, Balwearie will have pupils struggling with mental health or as a result of bullying and Ms Mitchell said there are strong policies and practice in place to support them.

“What gets me out of bed in the morning is that I can come to school and hopefully make a difference for young people and their families,” she said.

“For me that should look like every young person that walks through the doors of Balwearie feeling a sense of belonging, a sense of identity with the school, feeling safe and knowing they have someone they can talk to and will get the support they need when they need it.”

As a married mother-of-two – her children are in S1 and S4 – she’s also eager to protect wellbeing by ensuring staff can achieve a good work-life balance.

For her, listening to music or a podcast on her 45-minute commute home helps her decompress so she can then focus on her family and hobbies.

And music is a big part of that.

So much so that her cats are called David Bowie and Paul Stanley (KISS frontman).

“Now that I don’t teach music I have music as a hobby again,” she said.

Piano and flute are her favoured instruments but she said: “As a music teacher I can usually make a decent sound out of most things. Maybe not bagpipes but we have some cracking pipers in school who can do that instead!”

Both her children are musical so she enjoys playing with them but said: “I do have an external piano teacher because their mum teaching them piano is probably not going to end well!”

It’s always a bit of a surprise if I walk into the class and start playing a bit of piano!”

So her new pupils will probably be delighted if she joins them for a jam in the  music department from time-to-time.

And they will be even more thrilled to discover their head teacher has plays keyboard and piano in a band called Crooked Mouth which has a series of albums available on Spotify and other platforms.

Ms Mitchell said: “I used to play in a couple of bands, a lot of rock, pop, blues stuff.

“I used to play in a progressive rock band and I still dabble in that now and again purely for pleasure.

“It’s studio-based work, the composition, the creative side, it’s good fun.

“We are inspired and influenced by lots of different artists and there’s an eclectic mix across the band – very much our own sound.

“It’s always a bit of a surprise [for pupils] if I walk into the class and start playing a bit of piano!”