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The people's college

The story of the transformation of St Aloysius' College is a tribute to Glasgow's Irish immigrants and a nation's pursuit of academic excellence, says Hugh Dougherty.

YOU might be forgiven, at first glance, for writing off the green-jacketed A History of St Aloysius' College 1859 to 1999 as a eulogy to one of the Catholic educational institutions of Glasgow. The author is a self-confessed Aloysian, having been educated at the school, recently retired after teaching in its primary department for 41 years, and who now works as director of alumni.

But that would be to belittle John McCabe's achievement in a book which tells the story of the school against a constantly shifting social and educational background, so that this is more than a history of St Aloysius' College. It is, in many ways, the history of Catholic secondary education in Glasgow, and part of the story of the development of Scottish higher school education itself.

The Jesuits opened their school in Charlotte Street, in the east end, in 1859, to provide for the sons of the recently arrived Irish immigrant community. These were hard years, as the order struggled to raise expectations, and on more than one occasion St Aloysius' narrowly avoided closure for lack of numbers.

It was Fr Francis Bacon, head from 1875 to 1878, who put the school on a firm footing. More stability followed, and in 1885 the school occupied the site in Garnethill, then home of the west end well-heeled, which is still its base.

McCabe takes the story on against a background of the Scotch Education Department's dealings with the school, the effect of the 1872 Education Act, the Scottish Leaving Certificate being created in 1888, and the reign of the man who was perhaps the school's most influential headmaster, Fr Eric Hanson. It was Hanson who challenged the lack of achievement in the Glasgow Catholic community of the early 20th century, pushing aside the easy excuse ofanti-Catholic feeling in the host Protestant community, and creating the right conditions which allowed boys to advance to university and into the professions and commerce.

The story also includes unannounced visits by HMIs (showing that nothing is new) and the school's financial dependence for most of the last century on Glasgow Corporation and central government, both of which met the bulk of costs, leaving parents to meet nominal fees.

Fr John Tracey, headmaster from 1956-1971, took on the national drive for comprehensive education, rallying the Glasgow Corporation fee-paying schools, the Glasgow Highs and Notre Dames, against the tide that he predicted would affect attainment.

Then came the change to full independence, the admission of girls and the banning of the ferule, that peculiar instrument of physical torture dreamt up by Jesuits, which was dispensed by means of "bills" at St Aloysius', a cheque of sorts on which the teacher specified the number of strokes and the offence committed.

One of the great eccentricities of the college was the sight of boys, at the end of the school day, quivering outside an office marked "Prefect of Discipline" in which a Jesuit priest "cashed" the bills, dishing out, as a pupil of the 1880s records in the book, "twice nine".

There are eccentricities in this book, such as the pupil who rejoiced in the surname of Paternoster. For St Aloysius' College has always reflected the eccentricities of Jesuits since its foundation, an individualism that makes it a unique force to be reckoned with in Scottish education, and now schools the middle-class descendants of the poor Irish families it was founded to serve in 1859.

Much more than the magnum opus of a confirmed Old Aloysian, this book is worth the attention of the wider education community.

A History of St Aloysius' College 1859-1999, by John McCabe, is published by St Aloysius' College at pound;12.99.

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