Heretics welcome

10th October 1997 at 01:00
How did you get to where you are?

I arrived in Glasgow from Canada at the age of 15 and it felt like I had stepped into a time warp. Perversely, my experience of highly authoritarian Scottish education made me want to teach because I knew there had to be a better way.

I studied languages at Glasgow University, then did a PGCE at Jordanhill. I taught at Paisley Grammar for four years and then spent a year in Provence teaching at the University of Aix. From there I became a lecturer at Jordanhill but, after I had been there only a month, I had the opportunity to spend a year as a visiting professor at the State University of New York where I enjoyed the most leisurely time of my life, teaching only two evenings a week.

This gave time to visit a lot of schools around the States during a period (1970) of burgeoning alternative schools, free schools and schools run by parents and the community - for example the Harlem School run out of a disused supermarket which sent kids on to Ivy League universities. It was an exciting time.

I returned to Jordanhill fired with enthusiasm for alternative education and, with an American colleague and the support of Renfrewshire LEA, we set up a School without Walls in a deprived area just outside Glasgow, and a free school in a deprived part of Glasgow, run as a parent co-operative.

In the late 1970s I became involved in research, directing the Scottish Social Education Project and the Home from School Project which gave me my first in-depth insights into home-learning and led to research into homework and study support. This led to the setting up of the Quality in Education Centre as part of Strathclyde University.

In 1994 I was made a professor. The original focus of the centre's work was on home-school relationships, but is now increasingly on school self-evaluat ion and improvement. Current work includes the Improving Schools Evaluation Project in partnership with the London Institute of Education, the Prince's Trust Study Support Evaluation Project and the European Commission's Self Evaluation Project. Self-evaluation is at the heart of policy in Scotland and has seen some outstanding ground-breaking work in primary, special and secondary schools.

Would you have done anything differently given a second chance?

Gone by a much more direct route. I was seen as somewhat subversive in the early 1970s and that did not enhance my promotion prospects.

What do you enjoy about your job?

Meeting and working with creative, challenging and subversive people. I like heretics because they are a constant challenge to inert ideas.

What don't you enjoy?

Routine admin work.

What's the most difficult thing you have to do?

Confronting the subtleties of institutional bullying and injustice when people in positions to do something about it are determined they don't want to know.

What was different from what you expected?

When I set up QIE I was told by a number of colleagues not to do it. I have since learned about the pressures of directing a cost centre at the same time as doing development work. What I didn't anticipate was what happens when organisations grow. Maintaining and managing leaves less and less time for activities I thrive on.

Who or what inspired you and influenced your approach?

When I was younger I had a long correspondence with A S Neill. Jonathan Kozol's book Death at an Early Age about black kids in the inner-cities had a profound influence on me and I am still impressed by teachers in difficult schools who give so much to kids. The people I admire most are those who care passionately about young people and know that caring goes with high expectations. The trend to take the word "caring" out of mission statements is offensive.

What keeps you sane?

The three women in my life, Sandra, Sharon and Andrea [his wife and daughters]. A couple of glasses of red wine in the evening and reading, which is constantly expanding my horizons and challenging my thinking. I feel I am still in the foothills of my own learning.

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