Heavy rock fan finds a new role;Profile;Interview;Tommy MacKay;Briefing

15th October 1999 at 01:00
The president-elect of the British Psychological Society is a football-playing, evangelical Christian, Motorhead fan with a record of distinguished work with deprived children. He talks to Karen Thornton

WHEN I phone Tommy MacKay, he is "sitting in the midst of chaos", having just been burgled.

Only he doesn't tell me he's just been burgled. We discuss his career, his mother, his plans for the future, his predilection for heavy metal music - but he leaves the minor detail of the burglary to a scribbled note at the bottom of a letter which arrives in the office a few days later.

That omission seems to reflect the character of a man - now president-elect of the British

Psychological Society and honorary lecturer in psychology at Strathclyde university - considered both a consummate professional and a great eccentric by some of his Scottish colleagues.

An educational psychologist by training, his publications list runs to four densely-typed pages. It makes impressive reading including studies in reading

failure among deprived children; autism and other learning difficulties; punishment; and schools' expectations of educational

psychologists. More eclectic

interests include a study in passenger transport psychology, and a 1969 study in extra-sensory


A football-playing, evangelical Christian with interests in

genealogy and heraldry, Mackay drives a battered open-top jeep and took his wife to an AC-DC concert on their first date. He wore a Motorhead T-shirt to one of his leaving

parties, and takes regular dips in the Clyde, which runs at the

bottom of his garden in Ardoch, near Cardross, Dunbartonshire.

Born 53 years ago in Glasgow, he and his older sister were raised "in very poor circumstances" by their mother Violet after their father died when Tommy was only three years old. Christianity dominated his upbringing. He remembers his mother as "the world's ultimate optimist," taking any job she could to keep the family going. She died in 1980.

"Even though we were crushingly poor, she always had a vision of great things ahead. We grew up carefree, optimistic, always believing things would work well," he says.

He went to the city's

Hutchesons' boys grammar school, where his interest in

psychology started early. Aged 12, he started writing a book called Experiments in Psychological Research, which was subsequently confiscated by teachers. Freud - "at that time I thought psychology was basically Freud" - was not considered appropriate subject matter for schoolboys.

A keen classics scholar, he started a degree in the subject at Glasgow university. But in the second year he switched to

psychology and eventually

qualified as an educational


He began his career at

Ayrshire where he rose to become deputy principal psychologist. He left in 1982 to become principal educational psychologist in the Dunbarton division of Strathclyde region. In 1996, he left to set up his own consultancy, Psychology Consultancy Services (PCS), with his wife and co-partner Sue Reynolds.

She is principal educational psychologist in Glasgow, and the couple have a 10-year-old son, Neil. The pair met while

working in Dunbartonshire. It was a while before he discovered her musical taste tended more to Mozart than Motorhead.

It is his consultancy work with West Dunbartonshire, Scotland's second most deprived authority, which has won him wider recognition in Britain and abroad.

He and the council have been working together on a "cradle-to-grave" literacy scheme, which aims to challenge the belief that deprived children are doomed to academic underachievement.

The project, which is applying research findings on effective early learning and teaching, is already claiming great success in improving youngsters' early

reading skills.

He is reluctant to say that his lifelong interest in and work with deprived children stems from his own background. But others say his concern for young people is a thread running through everything he does.

"He is driven by the desire to change the lives of young people for the better," says Frank Newall, education and leisure services manager with West


In the past, Mackay has questioned the way society meets the needs of young people with

difficulties. He has challenged conventional political wisdom and, a colleague notes, his "idiosyncratic streak" has not always endeared him to everyone.

MacKay made his mark on the British Psychological Society last year, when he collected the society's award for challenging inequality of opportunity.

He sees himself as a general psychologist, although an educational psychologist by training, and takes a similarly broad view of his presidency, which begins next year. "Psychology has a major contribution to make - not just in education, but health, industry, and people's quality of life. I would like to highlight and enhance psychologists' contribution to society," he says.

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