History shows that we will adapt to change

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Jings, crivvens. Not content with claiming Scots patriot Sir William Wallace as a former pupil, the High School of Dundee has placed the cartoon character Oor Wullie in its pantheon of Old Boys. Help ma boab.

Robert Nimmo, rector of the High School, explains: "Dudley Watkins, the creator of Oor Wullie, was a pupil and he said he based the character on boys in his class. So you could say Oor Wullie was a former pupil." As a senior, his annual fees would now be Pounds 4,170.

Mr Nimmo, who chairs the management committee of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, is a mine of information about the High School, which celebrated its 750th anniversary seven years ago. "Braveheart" William Wallace was an early pupil - "the first and hopefully the last former pupil to have been beheaded", Mr Nimmo remarks dryly in a pamphlet on the school's history.

Tall, grey-haired and charming, Mr Nimmo, who is vice-chairman of the Scottish Examination Board, talks enthusiastically about the school he has been in charge of for the past 20 years. "We have come through eight centuries of Scottish education and have contributed to all the developments since then. Based on that I don't think comprehensive education which is suitable for the present time is here to stay from here to eternity or represents the highest attainment of educational thinking.

"The whole of history shows that independent schools will adapt to changing circumstances and information technology is going to produce a very profound impact on the education structure."

He looks back with pride on his stint as rector of the High School, which has a roll of more than 1,100 pupils and has been coeducational since it opened on its present site at the top of Reform Street in Dundee in 1834. "We still have the timetables of 1834 and the education of girls was not a novelty then. All the teachers were male and you used to have a matron knitting at the back of the classroom to make sure there was no hanky-panky."

Mr Nimmo speaks with satisfaction of the changes in his time. "We have expanded the number of buildings and developed the school, improved accommodation and modernised whole sections of the school. We now have a media studies theatre where pupils can make their own radio and television programmes.

"Pupil numbers have remained encouragingly stable and that is over two decades where numbers in Scottish education have declined dramatically from one million to just over 800,000 which has given rise to empty places in schools."

Asked about his leadership style, he replies: "Nowadays all headmasters have to be user-friendly and consultative. We operate in teams. As far as the pupils are concerned we have a code of discipline with guidelines to behaviour and everyone knows where they stand."

He is due to retire next year and says: "I am looking forward to doing all the things I haven't had time to do because being a headmaster is a totally absorbing activity. As a linguist I enjoy travel and I intend to do a number of ploys outside education."

If things had turned out differently Mr Nimmo could have had an alternative career as a spy. He graduated in modern languages from Edinburgh University in the Cold War 1950s and trained as a Russian interpreter at the Joint Service School for languages as part of his national service. However he never fired a verbal salvo in anger and emerged from the Army in a cohort of a highly skilled Russian linguists many of whom went into teaching.

He says: "I remember going on a British Council exchange to Moscow and Leningrad. The group of 24 were all male and 20 of us had received our Russian training in the Services."

He admits his Russian is rusty now but it comes in handy sometimes. "One night last November I came out of the school and there was a gentleman looking up at the building who asked what the school was. He said he was an engineer from Moscow over here for a course of study. I answered him in his own language and he went off thinking every Dundonian speaks Russian."

Mr Nimmo has three grown-up sons and a daughter, none of whom has followed him into the teaching profession. He is philosophical about it. "Not many children of teachers follow them into teaching. I think there are far more opportunities for young people today than there were, let's say, in my young days.

"Out of 120 leavers from the High School we are producing 17 into medicine, 15 into law - and accountancy, business studies and engineering are well up there. We are lucky if we get one or two going into teaching. Status and opportunities are available in a much wider way in society now. Abroad there are greater inducements into teaching because teachers are stratified more.

"In Scotland teachers are all paid the same, more or less, whether you are a first-class physics graduate or have a third-class degree. On the continent you are paid according to your qualifications and upper-school teachers in France and Germany are paid a lot more than here."

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