Sacrificed on the altar of change

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Facilis est descensus ad Avernum - and for the City of Glasgow education department, shoving St Leonard's Secondary downhill was the easy bit. The Catholic community of Easterhouse has been left to put together the pieces of the rest of the proverb, that coming back is quite another matter.

The closure has been in the nature of a surgically precise strike, as if the school were some kind of alien body in the educational system. As a result of the comprehensive scalpel stroke, the larger community no longer has an integral learning community for its Catholic children, a centre for psychological services, an attendance centre, or a learning network support for all its children.

Easterhouse has lost something. A community school has gone for good together with a little bit of heart.

My own experience of St Leonard's is in two parts. I first encountered it 32 years ago when I taught in junior secondary in the Gorbals. Then newly opened, the grapevine whispered that positions were available. As I had just bought my first car, I went out of an evening to see what it was like. Humiliatingly, I was overtaken by a policeman on a bicycle as I drove slowly past, and had to explain what I was doing and why. This was my first experience of Easterhouse, a circumstance of slight eccentricity, a feeling that has never left me completely. My second encounter was when my school became its feeder on the closure of St Gregory's Secondary.

St Leonard's was on a high. It had received a very good report from HMI, congratulating it on being a school that served the whole community, and complimenting the headteacher and staff for their effective management and application of the best features of educational practice. These reports are snapshots of a moment, and when the moment is magic, it is difficult to sustain.

Times and personnel changed, budgets became restricted, the area altered, staff had to transfer and what had been a generous liaison relationship regrettably had to be altered. To its credit, St Leonard's did its best to provide liaison that was more than standard tick lists and behaviour reports of children being transferred, and it was clear that on visiting the school former pupils had come to terms with that transfer and were maturing well. Or most of them were.

Not surprisingly, there is a feeling around of abandonment, even betrayal. I don't mean that the very public displays of action committees, placard-carrying or slogan-mouthing tell it all for everyone. I have more in mind the parent with whom I spoke, not very well educated, not particularly articulate, forced to come to terms with a less cosy world, getting a grip on the idea of facing up to the fact that the strength of the community about him had somehow or other been breached and ruptured, and by his own political people.

He felt betrayed by them and bewildered by the Church to whose schools he had sent all his children. "What's it all about?" he asked me with palms outstretched and shoulders shrugged. I couldn't answer him.

I have an inkling now what it is all about. A city renewing itself to face a new millennium, a reborn streamlined comprehensive system of education geared and ready for that. Centres of excellence, but victims of historical necessity. It is also about resilience and the ability to bounce back, and the kind of fortitude Russian writers used to marvel at when they saw the sufferings of peasants.

In a deep sense too, it is about continuity, being Catholic. St Leonard's closed its one-generational chapter with a Mass to celebrate achievements of the past and hope for the future. St Andrew's opened its new generational chapter with a Mass that encompassed and welcomed all its new Easterhouse S1 intake, that was intensely forward looking and with hope for the future. Maybe the road back up won't be as steep as all that.

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