End of the road for John Street

20th February 1998 at 00:00
This week Glasgow Council decided to close six secondaries. Seonag MacKinnon tells the inside story of one of the unlucky ones - a school that is not going to celebrate its 116th birthday.

The bell at John Street Secondary tolls for the school. As Glasgow council meets to decide on closure, its deathknell ring punctuates interviews with teachers, parents and support staff.

People speak of John Street's past and their campaign to save the 115-year-old school, and no one seems aware of the bell. At high noon a bus filled with parents drives off to lobby councillors at the crucial meeting at the City Chambers.

Headteacher Stewart McLachlan is painfully aware of the school's fate, but is constantly distracted.

"Oh dear. Oh dear. I shall be late," is the phrase that comes to mind as he looks intermittently at his watch while answering yet another question. It must be the stress of four months of uncertainty and the final day of reckoning which induces the Lewis Carroll-type agitation over time.

Neither I, nor the parent instructed to come in to discuss her son's imminent suspension, has a firm appointment. Curiouser and curiouser. Our discussion is interrupted by the commitments of the working head, as Mr McLachlan rushes off to supervise the football strip laundering, lunch, and to take his turn on tuckshop duty.

His determined attendance in the dining room and the two sittings seem a brave attempt to maintain the appearances of a busy school with a bright future.

In truth there are fewer than 400 pupils in this school which once had 1,200. There are acres of emptiness in the present building constructed 28 years ago which, with its leaking flat roof, is a silent recrimination to the architecture of the Seventies. However, with its new Halal kitchen and renovations to accommodate an independent unit for children with special needs from August 1998 - developments costing almost pound;200,000 - the building is also witness to the optimism that followed John Street's escape from the axe two years ago.

A dinner lady seems to try to compensate for the missing children by piling a triple portion on my plate. Which of the many empty chairs in the dining room to choose? What to say to the largely silent members of staff waiting to hear their fate?

In anticipation of crucial future job interviews, the staff have decided not to speak to the press on the record - the teachers whose job applications, Mr McLachlan says, may be handicapped in this part of the west of Scotland by not having the Roman Catholic certificate required to teach their subjects in RC schools, and the outstanding assistant head who may find it difficult to get an equivalent post in the city. Whatever the temptation to discuss their sadness and fears, we talk of the rain which is pouring down on the flat roof and the near-empty playground.

School closure will hit the entire neighbourhood. Bridgeton, once buoyant with lifelong jobs in heavy industry, has been living a kind of half-life for years. Near the school gate stand three pubs doing business and a multitude of boarded-up shops doing none.Many departing pupils are the second or third generation in their families to graduate onto the dole queue. Scottish Office statistics reveal that at least 22 per cent of John Street leavers go from school to dole.

But the area is not completely dead. Lively sectarianism pulses in Bridgeton. At Queen Street Station the taxi driver feigns a heart attack when I ask for St John rather than John Street - "See these Catholic schools. It's a piece of nonsense my council tax paying for separate schools." One parent says: "It's not going," indicating St Mungo's with a disgusted jerk of the thumb. Worse still, disbanded John Street children going to Whitehill Secondary, will have to walk near That Papist Place. "It will be like a football match every day of the week," claims one mother. "It will be bricks and bottles and chases up side streets."

There is frustration that John Street has made progress in the past couple of years, but not enough for the councillors. The roll has climbed by almost 50, the number of pupils departing for higher education has risen from 2-3 per cent to 7 per cent -the city average is 17 per cent and national average 29 per cent.

School board member Russell Wilkie says: "We kept our side of the bargain in giving our children to the school after the closure threat two years ago. The council hasn't done its bit in giving the school enough time to prove itself."

Mr Wilkie, a former soldier, seems to have found a cause to fight. Two thousand signatures were collected and a letter sent to Downing Street. Army boots have been swapped for a more casual snakeskin look but a steely determination is evident.

Mr Wilkie's daughter is one of 50-plus pupils who have instructed lawyers to investigate the potential for a judicial review of the school closure.

And if that doesn't work, he says, the councillors had better watch out when they come up for re-election next year. Mr McLachlan feels no bitterness towards the council, though he worries about his staff - particularly the ones in promoted posts and catering and cleaning.

No teachers will be made compulsorily redundant, their salary levels will be protected, but some will have to accept a less senior post .

He himself doesn't really want to retire, "but at the end of the day, what would there be left to offer me?" At 56 he can look forward to up to six years' enhancement of his pension. He has his eye on a second home in the Borders and is looking forward to the golf course and holidays in the US.

He is aware of his good fortune compared to that of his pupils, 80 per cent of whom receive footwear and clothing grants and whose children probably will too. "The council has been extremely generous and I fully accept that at the end of the day they have to take steps to improve resources for the next century."

He feels less clement towards the parents' charter and exam league tables which, with local economic decline, he holds responsible for the drop of almost a third in the school roll since he took over 15 years ago. In last year's exam tables not one John Street pupil got three or more Higher passes in S5, though seven got two or more in S6.

Mr McLachlan derives some comfort from the knowledge that pupils seem relatively unperturbed by the imminent end of John Street, although since Christmas he has had difficulty getting the supported study group going again. He blames himself because of the demands the closure has made on his time. He blames the closure again when he realises that the youngster he is about to suspend has been waiting outside his door for one-and-a half hours. Commendably, the boy is still on the designated chair, if asleep.

"Tell your mother you're in soapy bubble (trouble). She'd better come in and see me sometime this afternoon - make it tomorrow morning."

Mr McLachlan looks at his watch which confirms that the councillors will have begun the crucial meeting. It seems no time since he was a boy at this very school in its glory days when it had 1,200 on roll.

"There's some comfort that it will be a former pupil who will see the school through to the end," he says. "There's a nice roundness to the situation."

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