‘I thought FE was an amazing career choice’

20th July 2018 at 00:00
Willie McCurrach reflects on four fantastic decades as a lecturer, his recent OBE and why cooking ‘prodigies’ should come back and teach the next generation

In terms of milestones, it has been a great year so far for Willie McCurrach, curriculum head of food at City of Glasgow College. First, he celebrated his 40th anniversary in further education – all of it at City of Glasgow or its predecessor colleges – and then, only a few weeks ago, he was appointed an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Achieving the honour was “absolutely incredible” and “so exciting”, he says, and “the most difficult secret to keep from everyone”.

McCurrach’s first experience of FE was as a cookery student at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen in the 1970s, immediately after school, and it was then that he became set on the career path of teaching in the sector.

“When I first started at the college, I looked at what the lecturer did and I thought that was an amazing career choice,” McCurrach says. “So he mentored me. He said if I wanted to get into teaching FE, I needed to do X, Y and Z, and that is what I did. ‘You have to work in all the best hotels and get as much experience as possible, you have to get the qualifications’ – and the rest, as they say, is history.”

He began gaining that crucial industry experience as an apprentice at what was then the North British Hotel – now the Balmoral – a railway hotel in Edinburgh. “In those days, the transport hotels were [some] of the best training hotels,” McCurrach says. “They still believed in training, and they were in every single station. I was there for three years as an ‘indentured apprentice’, which meant you were on an apprenticeship programme and you had certain tasks and skills to learn on the job, and an assessor would come and sign your book off. But I would also be on day release to Telford College in Edinburgh.”

He moved on from there to the Gleneagles Hotel, and a number of other hotels, before applying for his first job in teaching at Glasgow College of Food Technology – which, following a series mergers with other FE institutions, has become City of Glasgow College – where he started in March 1978. “In those 40 years, I have never been late and I have never been absent. I have never been sick. You will always find me at my desk at six in the morning,” says McCurrach.

In many ways, teaching in a college has not changed a huge amount, he explains. “When I started, it was very similar to what it is now. We had amazing facilities. The students were different then – a lot of our students would be attending on a day-release basis, whereas the bulk of our students now are full-time, because industry tends not to send them to college for financial reasons. But, at the end of the day, the foundations of cooking haven’t changed. Everyone must eat, and it is a job for life.”

He adds: “Technology has changed, but industry still wants somebody who can stand and peel, chop, cut, bake, serve and produce good food to a high standard.”

Even at international competition level, he stresses, it is still the classic recipes that matter most. “They still want to use Escoffier’s cookery book for the recipes we produce, and the confectioners still produce pulled sugar, blown sugar, chocolate pieces you don’t see in industry any more unless it is really high-end.”

The teaching environment, however, is different: “It was a single discipline [at the Glasgow College of Food Technology],” he says. “The single discipline is still here within this college, but coming into this beautiful building is just inspirational. We now have, between part-time and full-time lecturers in food and bakery, about 40 lecturers. There are eight training kitchens, four bakeries, two cake-decorating rooms, a patisserie room, two restaurants and a retail space.”

McCurrach adds that students are “more challenging and more demanding now” than they were when he started – meaning they arrive with more complex issues and needs than they did a number of years ago. This places more demands on college staff, he says. “At the end of the day, we have had to change. We are fortunate here that we have a huge CPD budget, which allows staff to get training and learn how to handle people.

“We have also got lots more challenging situations, where chefs [in the industry in general] are taking their own life. Mental health is a huge issue. The college is great at giving us the tools to handle those situations.”

McCurrach’s first impression that teaching in FE would be a fantastic career has held true. (“I would stand by that,” he says.) So what is it that motivates him? “I enjoy seeing the confidence grow in the young people. They come in the door on the first day all nervous and anxious, but once they produce something, their eyes light up, and knowledge begins.”

He says he can spot talent very early on: “You can tell when somebody walks through the door, just on their attitude and how they appear on the day. You can always pick one or two out of a class who you know will be the rising stars of the future.”

And McCurrach tries his best to ensure they are not lost to the college once they leave: “I am a great believer in employing the prodigies. The majority of the staff now have come through the college. It is good to see the young chefs gain experience out in the industry and then they come back and work with us part-time – which helps our students and staff.”

The close links with industry and the department’s reputation also help in securing jobs, apprenticeships and work placements for students, he says. “They come in at the beginning of terms and immediately sign up our students to work part-time.”

And students have time to gain that experience alongside studying at college, he insists: “When I started college, full-time meant full-time. You were in college for 50 hours a week. Now an HND student is here for 15 hours. So they have plenty of time to go and work and gain experience in the industry.”

McCurrach has no immediate retirement plans, he tells Tes Scotland: “I have got a huge job to do here. These kitchens and bakeries downstairs are used three times a day, so you are always looking at ways of improving.”

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