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Honours for the woman who lit a thousand musical lights

A combination of passion and high standards fuels a successful pastoral effort. What links Stella Rimington, director general of the Security Service, and Tommy Smith, the internationally renowned jazz saxophonist? The answer is Jean Allison, principal teacher of music at Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh.

For her achievements over many years in introducing music to children with difficult family backgrounds, Mrs Allison has just been named Edinburgh University's alumna of the year. Her predecessor in the annual award, made in conjunction with the Royal Bank of Scotland, was Stella Rimington. And Tommy Smith? He was one of Mrs Allison's pupils.

At WHEC, as the community school serving the deprived Wester Hailes housing estate is usually called, music "offers a great deal of comfort to many pupils," Mrs Allison says. Give a pupil a keyboard and he or she "retreats into a private world." Many of her "weans" do not get much family support, she adds. Some of those learning an instrument cannot take it home. But for the music teachers at the school, the subject is not just an aspect of pastoral care. High standards are achieved, academic exams passed and Associated Board performance grades attained.

Mrs Allison, whose music degree made her an alumna of Edinburgh University in 1962, also strikes a personal emotional chord. She lost her husband prematurely and suddenly. It was her pupils as well as family and colleagues who came to her rescue.

Popular music offers the best way into her subject, she says. That applies not just to youngsters but also to the young unemployed group studying the business of rock music and to many of the adults who attend classes in the community wing of the school.

Tommy Smith, her most famous former pupil, "is just like one of my own children." Wherever he travels in pursuit of his career, he keeps in touch with Mrs Allison. He will take pleasure in the Edinburgh University award. That in turn will please Stewart Sutherland, the principal and vice-chancellor of the university, whose reputation as a philosopher of religion is coupled to a passion for jazz.

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