So farewell to the three Judiths

18th December 2009 at 00:00
Scottish education says goodbye to a trio of women who have left an indelible mark. Neil Munro raises his glass

This is an appropriate seasonal moment to say adieu to the "three Judiths", three wise women from the east who have played a pivotal role in Scottish education for the last couple of decades - and were certainly very much part of The TESS coverage during those years.

We refer, of course, to the three formidable Edinburgh-based figures of Judith McClure, former head of St George's School for Girls; Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council; and Judith Sischy, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools.

Although we can say that 2010 will not be the same without them, they are actually at different stages of departure: McClure has already taken off, Gillespie is being called to the gate, and Sischy has to wait in the departure lounge until July.

Whether they will fully retire remains to be seen. McClure is still the energetic convener of the school leadership group Selmas and of the Scotland-China Educational Network, in which role she virtually forged single-handedly the spread of Chinese language and culture in Scottish schools. She is on the advisory board of the Confucius Institute for Scotland, based at Edinburgh University. "Judith, she say ."

Apart from their energy, dedication and ubiquitousness, the three have also been united (unplanned, we assume) in fellowship of the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

The tributes paid to them when they were made SQA fellows demonstrated the calibre of their contributions. Gillespie was commended for her penchant to raise issues which "stimulate the thinking that enables development and improvement" and for "never being short of opinions"; McClure was applauded for her "forward and radical" thinking; and credit was given to Sischy for her "dedication to education" well beyond her role in SCIS.

The three Judiths are also united in another common bond: none of them is a native Scot. McClure hails from Middlesbrough, Sischy from Halifax and Gillespie came to Edinburgh from Croydon.

Yet another thread that binds them is the high regard in which they are held in unexpected quarters. Alex Wood, a regular TESS contributor, Edinburgh comprehensive head in one of the capital's poorest areas and scourge of privileged education, paid McClure a fulsome tribute in his column last July. As they increasingly worked together, he wrote, he came to realise that "serious professional leadership requires active engagement with whatever is good and admirable, wherever it may be found".

There have been few more effective lobbyists on behalf of private schooling than Sischy, yet several state school heads say she is held in the highest regard by those outside the fee-paying sector for her fairness and willingness to engage with them.

And Gillespie, while an irritant for virtually every government with which she has come into contact, provoked admiration from at least one official who perhaps saw some civil service qualities - her attention to detail, her capacity for doing her homework and her powers of logic.

There, the various resemblances end. McClure, the daughter of a policeman, is an ex-nun and a graduate of Oxford University; she became head of St George's School in 1994. Sischy was educated at the universities of Bristol and Toronto, and taught modern languages in the Canadian city; she became director of SCIS in 1990. Gillespie's association with Scotland dates from 1965 when she came to Edinburgh University to read history and politics; she found her national voice from 1989 onwards when she joined the SPTC and became an increasingly effective critic of the then Conservative Government's education policies.

Their styles are also very different - McClure flamboyant, Sischy measured, Gillespie cerebral. But, just sometimes, each can be a mixture of all three. Their invaluable contributions to educational debate will be sorely missed.

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