Paisley's finest hour

1st November 1996 at 00:00
"A calculated act of vindictive educational vandalism" carried out by "educational barbarians" or "Labour Neanderthals". Take your pick.

This is the verdict of Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times and new editorial supremo of the Scotsman, on Strathclyde's forlorn attempts to close Paisley Grammar in 1987-88. Go on, Andrew, don't pussyfoot around.

Full Disclosure includes a section on Neil's much loved grammar school which he left in 1967, when it still charged modest fees of Pounds 18. His successful intervention gave Scotland the infamous "80 per cent ruling", the diktat which forbids councils from closing a school if it is more than 80 per cent full. All decisions must be referred to the Scottish Secretary.

Neil describes Paisley Grammar as "a centre of excellence in an age of comprehensive mediocrity". It was run by the late Bob Corbett, a believer in "discipline and standards". Alerted to the planned closure, Neil "buttonholed" then Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind at the Tory conference but met with a lukewarm response. "This was the voice of the privately educated mandarin, " Neil complains.

Neil then appealed to Margaret Thatcher, with whom he was feuding. Nevertheless, according to Neil, Thatcher felt "guilty" since she had allowed grammar schools to close when she was Education Secretary in the 1970s. Neil contacted Brian Griffiths, head of the policy unit at Number 10. Not bad contacts for a man who prides himself on being an "outsider".

"Rifkind is in the pocket of the Scottish Office," he said, "and there are not many Tories there." Thatcher was duly "outraged" by Strathclyde's plans and ordered the Scottish Office to come up with its 80 per cent ruling. The school was "saved".

Neil records: "The left-wing press, especially the Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman, were spitting blood." Gotcha.

He was then invited to address a victory rally in the school hall where he had once operated the lights for the school play. "I sat down to a standing ovation, with people cheering and a few even crying, feeling as if I had just been nominated for president. It was heady stuff," he modestly recalls.

Rifkind was sent home to think again. Whatever became of him?

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