Obituary - Sandy McDonald

13th August 2010 at 01:00


A broad Cockney in Cheshire, Sandy McDonald invariably stood out. But the sixth-form principal relished a challenge, whether it involved transforming a school or persuading reluctant staff to listen to his bagpipe playing.

Alexander McDonald was born in Essex in June 1942. But his parents were both brought up on the Isle of Lewis, and raised their son with a keen sense of his Scottish heritage.

His policeman father similarly emphasised the importance of duty. It was this sense of community responsibility that motivated Sandy to train as a teacher, after completing a degree in history at Queen Mary College, London.

His first job was at Wrenn School, in Northumberland. In later life, he would be an engaging public speaker; as a young teacher, this same ability ensured his lessons were never dull.

But he was a man of ideas, keen for the opportunity to put them into practice. And so, after a stint as head of history in Southampton, he returned to the North East, this time as vice-principal of Cleveland's Bede College. Not long afterwards, he was appointed head of Rutland sixth-form college.

His natural charisma made this an obvious career progression. He had a disconcertingly good memory, and staff would regularly be greeted with questions about their families, or the rugby match they had mentioned in passing the previous week.

And he believed in fostering talent. Often he was able to discern his teachers' strengths even before they did: "I think you'd be good at this," he would say, opening up areas of professional development they had never previously considered.

This was true out of school, too. He worked as a prison visitor, contributing to inmates' education. He had a keen awareness of what different people needed from life, and wanted to do everything he could to help them.

In 1988, Stockport local authority announced it would be reorganising its secondary system. Marple Ridge High was one of a handful of schools selected for transformation into a sixth form college. And Mr McDonald was the principal chosen to oversee it.

Shortly afterwards, the chair of governors announced to staff that he wanted the new Ridge College to be educating 1,000 sixth-formers within a few years. There was a collective intake of breath: Marple Ridge had barely 200 A-level pupils. By 1991, however, pupils were travelling from Derbyshire - well beyond the catchment area - to attend the new college.

Much of this success was down to Mr McDonald's willingness to engage with the 11-16 pupils left over from the school's previous incarnation. He insisted their education should not be neglected merely because the school had changed around them; the pupils repaid his efforts by staying on for the sixth form.

He described himself as "an educated barrow-boy", and staff and pupils regularly impersonated his broad Cockney accent. With an invariable twinkle in his eye, he was quick to engage in light-hearted banter about a range of topics: education, football, Scotland, politics. He relished a good debate, and enjoyed the intellectual challenge of talking others round to his point of view.

It was this fondness for challenges that, in 1995, led him to suggest that Ridge should merge with Margaret Danyers College, on the other side of Stockport. Inevitably, there was resistance, from both colleges. But Mr McDonald cajoled, negotiated and persuaded until others came round to his point of view. Once again, his strength was in individual negotiation: he allowed staff on both sites to realise ambitions they did not know they had.

The one area, however, where some remained unconvinced was his bagpipe playing. He was an accomplished player, and it took the barest mention of the word "bagpipes" for him to volunteer his services, usually to mixed reception.

An avid First World War historian, he had played on the fields at Ypres. And he would regularly travel to Northumberland to duet with a piping friend there. The two had made a pledge: whoever outlived the other would play at his funeral. So, following a rare brain disease, Sandy McDonald's ashes will be interred on the Isle of Lewis to the strains of bagpipes.

Sandy McDonald is survived by his wife, Sian, and daughter Christina.

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