Obsession that's really worthwhile

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Chief education officer David Bell returns to the Glasgow school that inspired him to become a teacher.

I left my parents' house and walked the quarter of a mile to school. It was the same trip I'd made every day between 1971 and 1977 when I was a pupil at Knightswood Secondary School in the west end of Glasgow. Today was different though, as I was going back to Knightswood for the first time in almost 20 years. What heightened my anticipation was the knowledge that ten of my teachers were still there.

Knightswood Secondary School opened in 1958 as one of Glasgow's first purpose- built comprehensives. By the time I joined, it's roll was more than 1,300 pupils. Knightswood was a social engineer's dream. It had three main feeder primary schools: Blairdardie, serving the lower middle classes, Knightswood, which I attended, serving an upper working class council estate, and Temple which mainly consisted of children from the unskilled and semi-skilled working classes.

I remember an influx of enthusiastic young teachers between 1971 and 1975. Many had similar backgrounds to ours and had been the first in their families to go to university.

Few people were arguing then about the rights and wrongs of comprehensive education but there was some tension about the kind of school Knightswood was.

I can remember debates about the more traditional aspects of the school's life and culture. There was still a prefect system (with me as the school captain). Many teachers wore academic gowns and the school prize-giving was formal. Some younger and more radical teachers tried gentle forms of subversion - by not always conforming to the dress code or initiating debates with us about the rights and wrongs of school uniform.

The headteacher at this time, Norman Macaulay, had a national profile through his involvement in working parties on issues such as the raising of the school leaving age. He always gave the impression of being fearfully loyal to, and proud of, the school and all it stood for.

Now I recognise that he was a pragmatist who could accommodate the traditional and progressive elements of the school.

Ironically, given all the opprobrium that is heaped on the 1970s comprehensives, a range of strategies beyond mixed ability teaching were adopted. In my first year, all classes were taught on a mixed ability basis. In the second there was rigid streaming with class 2B1 being the highest ability and class 2B9 the lowest (the "B" standing for "Bruce" as all the year groups were named after Scottish heroes). By my third year, there was more mixed ability teaching, with setting in some subjects such as English and maths.

As I reached the gate, I realised how nervous I was - surprising given my present job which involves frequent visits to schools. Little seemed to have changed; then I noticed that the bike sheds had gone, which meant that Knightswood's famous smokers' corner was no more.

Entering the building, all was as I had left it, except that the school crest was prominently displayed as were the names of senior staff. The distinctive smell of the place was powerful. Best described as a mix of floor polish, cooking dinners and Knightswood kids, I've never smelled a school like it.

I met the current headteacher, Sybil Simpson. As I went into her room, my most vivid memory of that place came back - the day I was ushered in with my best friend, Neil MacDonald, to see Norman Macaulay's OBE. This was an insight into a different world and was part of Macaulay's benevolent overseeing of senior pupils.

But I was not there just to take a trip down memory lane. I was intrigued to know how far my recollections of the school were true. More importantly, I wondered if the flame of comprehensive education still burned so strongly, particularly among those who had been there 20 years or more.

There was little sentimentality among the teachers. What was striking, and encouraging, was an unshakeable commitment to comprehensive education in its contem- porary form at Knightswood. None of the teachers were particularly ideological about systems and structures. Almost all of them talked about their service in terms of commitment to classroom teaching, departmental leadership and educational improvement. They had high expectations of all their students.

A fierce loyalty to the school was apparent along with a recognition that times had changed. Knightswood is home to the Dance School of Scotland. This specialist school was set up by Strathclyde Regional Council long before the idea became fashionable south of the border. Eighty youngsters from all over the country have become pupils with the chance to follow a dance curriculum. During the week, they live in residential accommodation at the nearby St Andrew's College of Education.

Knightswood's post-16 students are being encouraged to plan their advanced study over two years, thus avoiding the eight months "rush" to the Scottish Certificate of Education Highers. The prefect system has been replaced with a "management development" scheme which includes all post-16 pupils. This imaginative programme gives them the chance to exercise skills, including organising parents' meetings, supervising younger pupils, taking part in debates and engaging in community activity.

I was told that the late 1980s and early 1990s had not been easy and morale, along with pupil numbers, had fallen. The drop in rolls in all Glasgow schools had meant that Knightswood's population had fallen below 700. Ultimately, it could be nearer 800. Under the leadership of Sybil Simpson, there was a sense that Knightswood was going places, with a mix of education appropriate to the 1990s plus traditional values which are still respected in the community.

I left with a range of emotions, almost all positive. I reflected on a confidence that the school had instilled in me. It was quite different from the supercililous arrogance that we met in pupils from private schools when the Scottish Daily Express ran its debating competition. I was grateful for being educated in a school alongside pupils from all backgrounds by teachers who were as interested in the least able as they were in the most able. I was reminded that my decision to go into teaching was influenced by the role models I had seen at Knightswood. And I was amazed at the resilience, dedication and enthusiasm of teachers who had committed almost all of their working lives to the school and who remained its most passionate supporters.

As I walked "home", I pondered on the fact that the great British obsession with school days reflects the experience of the few who, in their different ways, govern the many. It remains depressing that many politicians, senior civil servants, business leaders and leading figures in the arts and media have little direct knowledge of, investment in and commitment to comprehensive education. Such people are not slow to condemn what they neither understand nor have experienced.

Finally, the Bell family connection with the school continues. With my brothers and sister, my parents had an unbroken link with Knightswood for more than 20 years. Now my father has been appointed to the school board, the nearest a Scottish school comes to having a governing body. Such a commitment to comprehensive education is one which is mirrored across the country by parents, pupils and teachers. Now that is a worthy obsession.

David Bell took a degree in history and philosophy, trained as a primary teacher and became a primary head before entering administration. He is chief education officer for Newcastle City Council

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