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Really cared, really made a difference.

June 2, 2012

In the mid 1970s. teaching interviews in Edinburgh were held in the former Children’s Orphanage known as Dean Centre (Now the Modern Art Gallery). It was a bizarre, almost unfinished building in its interior, with lots of exposed pipes and wires and echoing staircases and basements. The windows were high, allegedly so the original inmates would not be able to see out, and you wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a thin voice carrying down the interminable corridors: “Please sir, I want some more.”

You were interviewed for jobs and promotions there, quite often in peculiar little cubbby holes, by education officials and a team of ‘Advisors, whose task it was to support the staff in the Capital’s schools.

I was interviewd for my first promotion – as an assistant principal teacher of Guidance – after an unfeasibly short 18 months in the profession. I can’t maintain that I was a driven and ambitious young turk – rather my headteacher had spotted something in me to which I was completely oblivious, and suggested I apply.

On the interviewing committee was that headteacher, the Advisor in Guidance, and, chairing the panel, the Depute Director of Education, Fraser Henderson, who died at the start of May this year. I was too naive to be overawed by the occasion, and any nerves were settled by Fraser’s friendly and relaxed manner. The interview took place in a strange wee room off a back staircase, possibly a maid’s room in the building’s original incarnation, and was going smoothly till, half way through, all the lights went out.

Fraser’s vocie came out of the darkness with the killer question: “In a social education class, what would you say to a pupil who asked if living together before marriage was a good idea?”

As I bewgan to answer, the lights flashed on again. Though what I said takes on the wisdom of Solomon at this remove, in reality at the time I was just being honest in my response: “I’d tell them that just because you can live together before marriage doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do so afterwards”.

For some reason, this tickled Fraser and we had a couple of minutes’ hiatus while he struggled to control his laughter. I gained the distinct impression that this was the moment when I got the job.

As my career progressed I became more aware of Fraser’s influence in local education circles – indeed, he became a kind of role model for my views on the breadth of approach needed, the importance of sport and outdoor education and the need to bust a gut for the most vulnerable of our pupils.

Of course, all of these are admirable sentiments – but the difference with Fraser was that he made things happen, instead of merely mouthing platitudes. Sports and cultural exchanges flourished with the support and ‘can do’ approach of this former PE teacher, teachers were supported at the chalk face. He was approachable, accessible and happy to be off the wall in his thinking if it was in the young people’s interests.

He must have driven his senior colleagues mad, coming out of meetings without a shred of paperwork, having ‘shaken hands’ on an idea to promote sport or the arts, an exchange, a festival of involvement, an out of school initiative. He would then go away and make sure it happened – using his charm, hard work, and enthusiasm to bulldoze all opposition – be it personal, institutional or logistic. He made things happen, and, in doing so, he inspired others to greater heights.

Much later in my career, he worked for West Lothian, and I had the joy of working with him on a working party looking at Youth Strategy. He’d obviously kept track of my career, which delighted me, and it was good to look back on that first interview after twenty odd years. He asked me one day about one of our guidance staff, Elisa. I said she was flourishing as one of our most respected and effective guidance teachers. He smiled broadly – as was his wont – and nodded. He had accompanied a music trip from the Lothians to Scandinavia when she was in 6th year herself; she’d been an outstanding pupil, and, he said: “I thought then that if she didn’t choose to become a professional musician, she would make a fantastic guidance teacher.” He was right – and he’d spotted that capacity in her before she’s even left school. Not only that, he remembered her.

How good it is for education when those in the highest places have that kind of connection with the pupils and teachers they serve.

Our working party met for nearly a full session. I suspect its remit was to find ways of reducing the budget for vital inter-agency cooperation in support of the most vulnerable pupils. Fraser wasn’t having any of it, and I was delighted that our final report emphasised the need for continued high level cooperation in inter-agency work, and even suggested ways to heighten it.

In what was perhaps a foretaste of the things to come, the report was quietly forgotten – but, as was always the case, working with Fraser had inspired me. You couldn’t help but focus on those who needed most support when you listened to Fraser, and the potential for sport to promote international links and a wider perspective was never far away either.

It all seems a long time ago now – when support was a reality rather than an aspiration, and those at the centre knew the workforce well and actively promoted the best of initiatives to ensure that education was a powerful vehicle for change and inclusivity.

I feel privileged to have worked under and with Fraser Henderson; I loved his style and attitude – and tried my best to replicate it. He was for me all that is best in education administration.

He really cared, and he really made a difference.

Not a bad epitaph for the man with the biggest smile and the warmest laugh.

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