First school, first love;Opinion

5th June 1998 at 01:00
AT THE end of the month they'll close the doors at St Tam's in Edinburgh's Lauriston for the last time. That collection of Victorian terraced townhouses and extensions will end its life as St Thomas of Aquin's High. Eventually, a brand new school will rise on the same site. But it won't be the same.

Like first love, the school where you start teaching will always have a place in your heart. For 16 years, I grew from gauche probationer to experienced teacher within those idiosyncratic buildings, and defended them as "full of character". Visitors often dubbed it the Tardis, stunned to find a secondary school behind the door of a terraced house.

I recall the shock of being interviewed for my first job in what appeared to be a Victorian lounge - albeit containing a PT English and 25 pupils. Its former existence as a convent school left an atmosphere of gentility. It was a rare feeling to be on playground duty while blossom from cherry trees fell about your shoulders, and squirrels on raiding parties up from the Meadows kept warily clear of excited first-years.

Of course, it's really people and relationships that make schools special, even if St Tam's architectural oddities did provide a unique backdrop: new staff could never quite grasp the necessity to first go upstairs if you wanted to descend to the basement. History and atmosphere, the legacy of so many former pupils and staff, made St Tam's a special place, and I learnt much about life and education from many colleagues and students in my time there.

Family connections with the school go back to the 1920s, and I often reflected that the classroom where I started my career was about 150 yards from the ward in the Simpson Maternity Pavilion where I was born, a few short steps for a man, a long journey to maturity for this teacher.

Schools, like their pupils and staff, must continually be changing to meet the needs of the society they serve, and the St Thomas's buildings had long outlived their useful service to education. The new building will be far better able to meet the needs of its pupils, but it's equally true that those pulled together old houses will always be an important part of my life. When I close my eyes I can picture the excited faces of my first-form class, 1975's 1Q, with Louise and Lorraine and Steven and Miggie and the rest: the pupils who made me want to teach.

Whatever the atmosphere of the new St Tam's, I hope it stays as caring and friendly as it has for more than a century, with the same high academic standards. However magnificent the new buildings, they'll never quite replace the Victorian rooms where this teacher really started to learn.

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