Crime and enlightenment, Sixties style

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
he 1960s and 1970s have been taking a bit of a kicking recently. Tony Blair has criticised their legacy of liberalism while David Bell, chief schools inspector in England, has attacked the teaching theories of the era as "plain crackers". They can say what they want. I see the period only through a filter of nostalgia - a time when the thrill of change blended with the exciting experiences of my teenage and student years.

One fond memory is of my experience at Geilsland approved school, near Beith in north Ayrshire, where my interest in working with young people awakened. I had done a number of student holiday jobs without enjoyment when someone suggested I might try an approved school where boys with a history of crime were placed by the courts.

I was hired as a teacher. I knew nothing about teaching so it was just as well that I seldom entered the tiny classroom during the three years of student holidays and many weekends that I spent at Geilsland. Classroom learning was expendable in the minds of pupils and staff.

The boys, aged 13 to 18, had been consigned to junior secondaries after failing the qualifying exam and were already turned off normal school life.

Their Geilsland timetable emphasised practical activities: brickwork, gardening, painting, carpentry and metalwork. It was the right curriculum for the boys. It was also right for me. When instructors went on holiday, I filled in. Was I qualified and experienced in any trade? Of course not, but to survive I became a quick learner.

The school was dominated by the headmaster, Alexander (Sandy) Munro, an ex-teacher with a naval background. He had been at Geilsland from its small beginnings and had established its philosophy of achievement through firm discipline and physical work. He was determined, single-minded and dedicated but he also knew the value of friendship, sympathy and encouragement and had a riotous sense of humour. The school was built on his personality and he commanded great affection from staff and pupils.

Today we would applaud his "vision" and "leadership skills", and he would scoff at such descriptions.

The boys came from Glasgow and the west and had already built up a history of offending. Many boasted family members in the system and expected to progress from approved school to borstal to prison in the same way that another teenager would pass Highers and go to university. The Geilsland regime gave boys pride in themselves and a level of care that many had not experienced before.

A popular activity was the Geilsland Minstrels. The headmaster's concert party of teenage boys started as a public relations exercise and was soon in great demand in the area, giving packed-out performances and donating proceeds to charity. The final song was "My Prayer". The headmaster took the microphone and, against the humming boys' chorus, intoned the words:

"I've tried to be good and I know that I should That's my prayer at the end of the day."

Yes, it was nauseating but the audiences loved it.

Like most good teachers, Sandy Munro was a showman. I last heard of him some years ago when the Herald reported a domestic break-in in Beith. It stated that the next door neighbour, retired headmaster Mr Alexander Munro, raised the alarm then gave chase to the burglars. Age did not change him.

Today, Geilsland is a special needs school, a world away from the establishment that I knew. I don't know if old Geilsland was successful in keeping its boys away from further crime but it gave me valuable experiences. I chased absconders around Paisley housing schemes. I used military commands on parade and drove lorries. Most of all, I learnt that Geilsland boys were just like other boys - it was the circumstances of their upbringing which were different. Thanks, everyone.

Brian Toner is head of St John's primary school in Perth.

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