Success against the odds

26th May 1995 at 01:00
CRAIGROYSTON DAYS: THE STORY OF AN EDUCATIONAL REVOLUTION. By Hugh MacKenzie. Mainstream #163;12.99. - 1 85158 706 3.

Hugh MacKenzie was a remarkable headteacher. He took on Craigroyston Secondary in the early 1970s when it was a failing testament to its location in one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, in the community which was soon to give Scotland's capital the dubious label of Aids capital of Europe.

If anything, the economic and social problems of Craigroyston's catchment area worsened in the 20 years of MacKenzie's headship, but he turned his school into a focus for visitors from all over the world and, far more important, a secure and supportive haven for its pupils, their parents and other members of the community.

Craigroyston became one of Lothian's pioneering community high schools. Ambitious plans to persuade back into education adults whose school days had been blighted led to special funding from the Netherlands-based Bernard van Leer Foundation. An under-fives centre followed, not just as a nursery but an opportunity for mothers to re-enter education.

In Edinburgh, however, Hugh MacKenzie became famous for his style as much as his achievements. A stocky, pugnacious figure, he had a penchant for leather jackets and a contempt for the traditional trappings of Scottish education. As he writes about arriving in his new staffroom (which he preferred to the head's study): "I wanted the teachers to hang up both their academic gowns and their belts."

He succeeded, although not without fierce staff debates and occasional run-ins with local government bureaucrats. Throughout his account of life at Craigroyston, MacKenzie constantly refers to his mentor, A S Neill, a Scottish educationist never mentioned at Moray House College of Education where MacKenzie had trained.

Neill's child-centred views became MacKenzie's, but with reservations: MacKenzie is at heart more of a practitioner than a prophet. Unlike Neill at Summerhill, he always recognised the importance of academic qualifications. Indeed, he pioneered the use in Scotland of CSE Mode 3 courses in the pre-Standard Grade days when non-academic youngsters left without any recognition of their achievements.

MacKenzie himself asks why his challenges to established ways succeeded while, for example, Michael Duane at Risinghill in London and R F MacKenzie in Aberdeen paid for their radicalism with their jobs. He answers his own question in detailing how he took his staff along with him,especially in his determination to abolish corporal punishment. Never pushing his colleagues further than they would go but always emphasising his own agenda, he introduced a more thoroughgoing school guidance system than was generally to be found in the 1970s, and therefore he was able to put before his teachers an alternative approach to handling difficult youngsters.

In the end, his success was down to force of leadership. He was able to choose new staff from applicants excited by his ideas. He badgered friends,especially golfing partners, for financial support for school projects. He peppered the press with news of Craigroyston's achievements. He was in short a personality among heads who increasingly were programmed to be efficient but colourless managers in a bureaucratic system.

MacKenzie retired early, neither beaten nor bowed. His final words look to the future. He suggests that if Tony Blair chooses to visit his old Edinburgh school, Fettes, he should extend his visit by a couple of miles and take in Craigroyston, "where he will find educational ideas which will be of more use to the bulk of the population he will govern than those of his old school".

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