The dominie's domain

13th October 2000 at 01:00
The traditions of country schooling at Abercorn primary in

West Lothian must not be lost, says Bill Fyffe Hendrie PARENTS fighting to save West Lothian's smallest and most picturesque primary, the 44-pupil Abercorn, from imminent closure have called in aid memories of the school's most famous dominie.

The first Victorian headmaster has many lessons to teach the local authority including putting moral standards before money, introducing the most modern methods and stressing the need to study the local ecology and ensure its conservation.

Christopher Dawson was appointed in 1846 and spent all his 43-year career at Abercorn. He became well known throughout the country for his pioneering methods - from encouraging pupils to learn at their own pace to leading the way in abolishing corporal punishment.

Arriving in the little parish on the shores of the Forth between Bo'ness and Queensferry, young dominie Dawson did, however, wield the tawse in traditional fashion, scared that as he was only 20 the lively country children might try to take advantage of him. "I was careful to check the smallest acts of disobedience and thus was never challenged by any great ones," he later wrote.

Firm insistence on discipline did much to reassure parents when from the outset Dawson began to introduce his innovative teaching methods such as taking the pupils on nature walks through the grounds of neighbouring Hopetoun House, holding story-telling sessions on fine days at Abercorn village green and arranging after-school lessons in fishing, of which he was a devotee.

Before the close of his first year he felt confident enough to dispense with the tawse. His niece Jean Butler later wrote about her uncle: "One day in school an interesting and amusing ceremony took place. The faithful tawses which had proved such a useful ally during the first few months were declared to have served their purpose and outlived their usefulness and were solemnly cut in pieces, some of the girls carrying away the bits as trophies of a bygone age."

As dominie Dawson's progressive approach became well known Abercorn School began to attract the attention of many of the distinguished guests of Lord Linlithgow at Hopetoun House.

Several called at the school and were persuaded to promise that on future visits they would bring back souvenirs of their foreign travels which the dominie used as object lessons before adding them to his small museum. There was insufficient space in the schoolroom for this display; so he sacrificed a room in the schoolhouse.

Any doubts among the parents of the parish were dispelled when the minister and all the elders paid their first annual visitation and came way announcing themseves entirely satisfied with the pupils' progress. Lord Linlithgow even entrusted a young Muslim boy from Turkey, the son of a visiting diplomat, to the dominie's tutelage rather than sending him to boarding school in England as had been expected.

Faced with the boy's language problem, Dawson devised an individual learning plan on lines already being developed for the other children, "taking into account their interests and enthusiasms to encourage them to concentrate on their reading and counting". Dawson confesses that as a schoolboy he had had difficulty with dates and what he describes as "times tables", and stresses that these memories made him keen to avoid rote learning and recitation without understanding.

After 26 happy years, dominie Dawson's freedom to teach in his distinctive way was threatened when in 1872 the newly established Scotch Education Department tried to introduce payment by results. Many of the old established dominies resigned and accepted the pensions they were offered rather than adapt to the new regime, including visits by intimidating inspectors.

But Dawson, despite complaining that "it is now expected that children shall be regularly turned out by the gross like so many little human vessels duly warranted to contain a specific amount of information", decided to stay in post.

"Reduced to nothing more than a grant earning machine", he still managed to teach in his own fashion, while at the same time adhering to the Scotch Education Department's instructions, by opening the school an hour early to leave time for his own approaches to the curriculum, without endangering his pupils' chances of passing the official tests.

In particular, he disapproved of the standardisation of religious instruction along Presbyterian lines. As an Episcopalian, Dawson solved this problem by ensuring that all RE lessons were held during "his hour" when he was able to make them as ecumenical as he wished.

In 1878, the then recently established school board built the fine slate roofed school which West Lothian Council is now trying unsuccessfully to persuade parents is too remote and inadequate to meet the needs of modern pupils. The school, whose quaintness makes it look an ideal location for filming the Harry Potter stories, is a landmark for motorway drivers, and the parents are showing as much determination as the redoubtable dominie Dawson that it should remain so.

Like him they are convinced that there is room for the individualistic style of country schooling which Abercorn offers their children, many of whom travel from outwith the school's catchment area, and that they should not be sacrificed to fit in with the council's desire to save cash.

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