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Lessons from the shipyard

The death of Jimmy Reid and the coverage of his passing, alongside analysis of the role he played in the heroic work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, prompted much reflection on my part: not least, where have 40 years gone?

I've said before in these pages that my father was a shipwright in the Govan yards and that the struggle of the early 1970s had a huge impact on my political thinking. I can clearly recall hearing Reid on television talking about how some people would reduce the lives of the workers in Govan to statistics but, he exclaimed: "We are not statistics, we are human beings."

Reid's key messages seem particularly apposite in today's economic scenario, although the bankers seem to be doing all right again and the rich are no poorer. There is no alternative, TINA, we are told. Now where have we heard that before?

What shines through most coverage, leaving aside the tributes to his skilful oratory, is the sense of a man who believed in a set of principles that had at their heart a recognition of human value and worth: "Real fulfilment for any person lies in service to his fellow men and women."

The Herald's reprinted text of his 1972 Glasgow University rectorial address was a refreshing reminder of the values we would like our society to embrace, and its message is as relevant today as then. I found it a welcome antidote to the summer procession of ermine-coated Labour lords that left me shaking my head at the hubris of office. Compromise can always be rationalised, of course, and it's a necessary part of reaching consensus in disputes and politics, but it would be edifying to see, occasionally, some public figures stand by personal values.

Thankfully, many people do just that in their daily lives without fanfare or trumpet.

One of the most humble and inspiring people I have met is the Reverend John Miller, who served as a minister in Castlemilk, where he lived, for many years. (He and his wife have now retired and are working in an orphanage in Africa, I believe.) John eventually became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. I spoke to him some time after his term of office and asked him how he had found the experience. He said it had opened many doors for him but that, when he went through the doors, he simply found other people much the same as himself.

What both these figures had in common was a belief in the dignity of individuals, a quality I believe our profession strives to achieve in our daily contact with pupils. Respect is a cornerstone of the relationships crucial to effective teaching and learning, which is why teachers remain one of the most trusted professions (the most distrusted being politicians, bankers and journalists, according to the Hansard Society's annual Audit of Political Engagement 2010).

Life isn't easy for so many young people; broken homes, poverty and deprivation are disgracefully commonplace. But in schools, we can and do make a difference. Giving youngsters a sense of their own importance and self-esteem, an echo of Reid's message to his working-class audience in the shipyards, should be an essential strategy in all educational establishments.

I was planning to use Reid's rectorial address with my Higher English class this session - it's a gem of a speech in structure and language - so the announcement by Alex Salmond, at Reid's funeral service, that it was to be made available to all Scottish schools was timely and welcome. Rather than being seen as old-fashioned or outdated, the speech's uncompromising vision of a faith in humanity is a lesson in citizenship that would be hard to match.

Larry Flanagan is education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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