Stop the train, I want to get back on

20th October 2000 at 01:00
A RECENT journey along the Ayrshire coast railway was my first visit for many years to a line I once travelled daily. Initial disappointment in finding that the rolling stock seems not to have been updated since the 1960s was soon replaced with fascinating glimpses of my early school experiences along the route.

Just out of Ayr station, the site of the secondary school I attended as a pupil passed in the same semi-conscious blur that my secondary education did. Only the uneven fence of upended railway sleepers remains, bordering a thriving patch of stinging nettles into which bigger boys regularly threatened to throw us. My most enduring memory is of the school burning down during my fourth year and helping on a fruitless quest for undamaged equipment among the smoke-blackened and twisted metal desk frames while Mark Wynter sang "Venus in Blue Jeans" on a transistor radio.

A few years and a few miles later I arrived by train in Irvine to take up my first teaching post, all leather jacket, flares and moustache. The new town development had not begun and the walk from station to school was along a street of rundown fisherman's cottages, long demolished and now replaced by a gleaming Asda supermarket. The school of 800 primary pupils was a small Victorian building surrounded by a straggling collection of huts of varying vintage. My probationer induction was the welcome on the first morning from the depute head as she escorted a line of 35 P6 children.

"Sorry. I didn't realise it was this class you're getting," she said, and quickly closed the classroom door; yet it was the children and not the adults who helped me learn about teaching. Since the most appealing textbook in the cupboard was the dreadful Making Sure of Maths a new teacher had to discover a hitherto unknown ability to communicate and interpret ideas and it was the children's understanding, or lack of it, which told you if you had got it right. When you come across thirtysoethings with a shaky grasp of basic number you can bet that they had to wrestle with the confusions of Making Sure of Maths.

I was also learning about staffroom etiquette - especially on the day I crossed the floor to join the young infant teachers at lunch. It was a long walk accompanied by an icy and disbelieving silence and, I think, brought me a brief reputation as a revolutionary. I only wish that the courage which came easily on that day had been more readily available during later stages of my career. At the Christmas party Little Jimmy Osmond sang "Long Haired Lover from Liverpool".

The school was demolished years ago and a small housing estate, which can be seen from the railway line, has taken its place. The place was modest in its aspirations but it provided me with the right experiences at the right time and my memories would have been spoiled if it had survived to follow the path of target-setting and improvement.

A few miles further up the railway line is Glengarnock, once a rundown British Steel town where the site of the redundant works has been landscaped.

For a time this was my jumping-off point to a nearby approved school, where I met boys who expected to progress to borstal then prison, usually following in the footsteps of other family members, in the same way as their more fortunate peers aimed for university.

On the window of the boarded-up shop beside Glengarnock station someone had written the words of Don McLean's "Vincent" ("Starry, starry night . . .") and I learnt a new verse in the half light of each morning as I waited for the bus in the drizzling rain.

Probationer teachers now have mentors and special programmes to help them to cope with teaching in today's more complex and inclusive schools. I had the schools on the Ayrshire coast railway line and a quick survival course of learning by doing. I preferred it that way - even if it did nothing for my second-rate musical tastes.

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