Ministerial breeding ground
Last month a Scottish state comprehensive saw two of its former pupils emerge from Downing Street as government ministers. George Robertson is Secretary of State for Defence and his contemporary at Dunoon Grammar, Brian Wilson, is Scottish Minister of State for Education and Industry. More remarkable still, this school has already produced two government ministers in recent years: the late John Smith, Labour leader and a cabinet minister in the Callaghan government, and Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish, a Conservative Education Minister at the Scottish Office in the 1980s. It is the stuff of staffroom fantasies.
So what strange alchemy was present at this Clydeside holiday town on the fringe of the Highlands, to produce so many high achievers? The new Scottish education minister would like to see the chemical constituents in the alchemy identified. "I'm aware of the danger of over-romanticising one's own adolescence of 30 odd years ago," Wilson says. "But I'm in no doubt about the value or relevance of the education we received. It was high quality based on fundamental principles of literacy and numeracy." He particularly admires the fact that the school was a broad church. "It was a school to which everyone went: rich, poor, clever, not so bright, Catholic, Protestant, girls and boys."
How comprehensive it truly was is a matter of dispute. In the 1950s and 1960s, the fourth, fifth and sixth years were top heavy with able pupils from the Highlands and Islands arriving in senior secondary on bursaries. Even with these grants, sending a child to the senior school at Dunoon involved a certain amount of financial sacrifice, so families usually managed to send only the brightest of their children.
"The children from the Highlands and Islands were a very important element, " says Jim Smith, a contemporary of John Smith and head of a north London comprehensive. "They enriched the general calibre of the school. Dunoon Grammar took off for me when they came. My first few years at the school were pretty pedestrian."
Smith believes the group - not unkindly referred to as "teuchters" - brought energy into the school because they were away from home, living in digs. They were generally excited about being in a semi-urban environment for the first time. He also believes that Dunoon's success can in part be put down to the greater expectation in Scotland, as in Wales, that education presents an opportunity to "better oneself".
Individual teachers might encourage a child, but there wasn't any collegial nurturing of talent. Children were streamed as soon as they came into the school and it was very difficult to move up. "A" stream children benefitted by being stretched, especially in the senior part of the school when they were sparking off some of the brightest children in Argyll, not just those from Dunoon, says Professor Gow, pro-vice chancellor at Sheffield University and a government adviser on Far East affairs.
But others - like himself - were casualties of the strict streaming. Professor Gow, MA PhD FRSA Hon FIL, left for the navy at the age of 15, with a reference from the headteacher which said: "This boy is not bright enough to go on at school." He now says, "It was and is a good school, but if it was in any sense an incubator of talent, it must have happened in the fourth, fifth and sixth year after I left." Gow pays tribute to individual teachers, but feels that family background also had a lot to do with the success of those who became eminent politicians.
George Robertson was the son of a policeman posted to Dunoon. He admits to being "terribly shy" when he started at the school, and believes the debating society was the catalyst in producing politicians. Under the head of English, William "Belcher" Murray, who ran the debating society, there was a big emphasis on encouraging younger children to take part, not just those who were already interested and confident in it. Robertson dubs him "the Godfather who produced us. He's the one who really made the difference. The great flaw of Scottish education is that it doesn't give children enough confidence in themselves. Dunoon gave us a belief that we were as good as anyone else. "
The defence minister is just back from his first visit to the Pentagon. He had to walk ceremoniously to a table where 20 of his people sat on one side and 20 US officials on the other, but only Robertson and the US defence secretary spoke. "At times like that, when you are only a few weeks in the job, you are very glad that real confidence in your own skills has been instilled," he says. He is also amused at his new job in charge of the armed forces since in his radical youth he "bitterly resented" being in the school's cadet corps.
Brian Wilson agrees with Robertson that the school recognised potential and built pupils up. In trying to identify other mutual influences on John Smith, Robertson and himself, he points out that they all have Highland backgrounds rather than that of semi-urban Dunoon. The fathers of Wilson and Smith were also Labour supporters.
Of one thing Wilson is certain: he and Robertson, who was just ahead of him, were largely politicised by the arrival of US nuclear submarines at nearby Holy Loch in 1961. He speculates that they also developed anti-establishment tendencies as a reaction to the wealthy Highlands landlords and to the Tory stronghold Argyll then was.
Some outstanding teachers also left their mark on pupils, says Wilson. He singles out such individuals as Robin Jenkins the novelist and English teacher Bob Morton, who accompanied the young sixth former to New Delhi to meet the President of India when he won an essay-writing competition; also Archie Blair, who taught English, history and modern studies.
Blair, who worked with both boys on the school magazine committee, was renowned for his independence of thought. He supported Labour but cheerfully admits to being "more of an anarchist than an activist". On one occasion he took a few pupils, including George Robertson, to a public election meeting of Tory MP Michael Noble. "He was expecting the usual adulation," says Blair. "But whatever I said, it got him rattled."
The many extra-curricular activities such as football, hockey, theatricals and the magazine must have played a part, he assumes.
Alex Hendry, a contemporary of John Smith and now a senior reporter on the Daily Express, remembers a lively but traditional school with braid, prefects, dux, prize giving and a house system. "There were lots of opportunities for pupils to shine in different ways," he says. "Nowadays competitiveness is sometimes frowned upon, but there was nothing shameful about not winning if you had tried your best. A lot of these competitions were in the context of a team effort."
John Smith took no interest in athletics but was a member of the compulsory cadet corps. It was under the charge of Sgt Smith that the Stewart Platoon won a prize for drilling. On winning, he took them to the Cosy Corner cafe for an ice cream. Ironically, Smith's nickname at the time was "Hairy".
In 1991 a less hirsute Smith, along with fellow alumni-turned-colleagues Robertson and Wilson, attended a dinner to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the school (pictured below). He too paid tribute to his education in his after-dinner speech: "I believe that Dunoon Grammar School is the embodiment of what I think is the best education that it is possible to obtain in the Western world, and that is an education in a Scottish county school."