Tom McDonald

High School, a documentary series following pupils and teachers at Holyrood Secondary, finished this week. The Glasgow school's headteacher explains why he let the cameras in and why they didn't always film what he wanted them to. Interview by Elizabeth Buie

Elizabeth Buie

How did the High School programme come about?

One of the programme-makers, Michelle Friel, had done some work with the school before; she had this embryonic idea of doing a documentary based on the life of a secondary school and contacted us. The concept was to look at particular people and do case studies of the school academic year with them. The idea appealed to me and, having spoken to my director, our reason for saying yes was that schools in Glasgow achieve great success for children from all different walks of life and aspirations, and we don't often get recognition for it.

It was produced by the same company that made The Scheme - did that cause you any concerns?

Initially, I didn't know that Friel Kean Films was responsible for The Scheme. By the time I found out, I had got to know them pretty well. I was confident in what their motives were and, from the outset, we agreed that they would always portray a fair and balanced view of the school. I told them that, as someone who came from a scheme myself, I did understand that they had exposed some social issues that needed to be exposed, but overall I didn't think the viewing public got a fair and balanced view of life on a scheme.

How much editorial control did you have?

Not a great deal. They would sit down with me regularly and discuss the kind of stories they were pursuing and, while I was delighted they were going to look at head boy and head girl elections, and someone going to Oxford, when they said they were going to look at a truancy story, I obviously had a bit more apprehension.

How did staff react to the cameras?

They were in the school for the best part of a year - from August 2010 to June 2011. Initially, obviously, it was a bit of a novelty, but they were very unobtrusive. People maybe think of a TV crew as cameras and lights and sound, but basically the two film-makers acted completely independently - there was no one with them, no back-up crew, no lighting or sound crew.

Were there any ill effects on any of the children featured - for instance, Liam, who has Asperger's syndrome, or Zoe, who has skin and other allergies?

The motivation behind Liam and his family was that they were keen to show that someone with Asperger's syndrome or autism could come across as someone who has confidence, can communicate and can express themselves. I think Liam put it very well himself - he doesn't want to be a "muppet", he wants to be seen as him - not with a label on him. And I think he did an awful lot to promote an understanding of what it means to have Asperger's syndrome. If anything, it's helped him gain acceptance. To my knowledge, he's not attracted any negative comment. Likewise Zoe - I think she came across as an adorable child. I think people came to an understanding of how difficult life is for some of our children.

How did you select the pupils featured?

I didn't select them - it was Jules Kean and Michelle Friel in discussion with people in the school. They would be aware of events happening - like the school fashion show. They also spoke to year heads and pastoral care staff, so people like Liam, Zoe and Daniel emerged from discussion, looking to find young people who represent a big investment of time, energy, expertise and dedication and for whom they felt they were making some headway. Some children they selected, it didn't work out - maybe they were a bit too camera-shy or found it hard to communicate, or the story didn't fulfil itself. Some things I'd have loved them to film, but they didn't - like winning the Scottish Cup.

Will it boost the school's Malawi Project?

I hope so. I think it will probably provide more of an understanding of what we're achieving in Malawi. People might think it's easy to send the money - but when you actually go to Africa and you meet people there, they are delighted that you show interest in them and that you care about them. They'll also understand the physical impact we have - building 25 classrooms. Education is the biggest weapon against poverty. And I think they'll also see the impact on our children who go there - that they are young, impressionable people of 17 or 18 years old and it is not an exaggeration to say it is life-changing for them.

Very little actual classroom teaching was shown - was that deliberate?

I think they were more looking at the development of the child or member of staff. The most important thing we do is teaching - no question about that. But they did not think that seeing classroom teaching would enhance the story of the children.

A thread has started on the TESS online chatroom about the programme in which one contributor describes you as a Kenny Dalglish lookalike. Flattered?

If I could play anything like Dalglish, I'd be absolutely delighted - King Kenny is one of my heroes. If they'd said John Lambie, I'd be even more flattered. I don't read online forums myself - but if people think things should be criticised, then "fair cop".

What was your favourite bit in High School?

It's when a boy in the first episode who is Muslim says that, in five-and- a-half years in the school, he's never once experienced discrimination. To me that speaks volumes for Catholic education.

Personal profile

Born: Helensburgh, 1953

Education: St Joseph's Primary, Helensburgh; St Patrick's High, Dumbarton; University of Glasgow; Jordanhill College of Education Career

Dumbarton - assistant principal teacher of guidance and then modern languages; St Andrew's High, Clydebank, principal teacher of modern languages; St Mungo's Academy, Glasgow, assistant head; Bellarmine Secondary, Glasgow, depute head; All Saints Secondary, Glasgow, head; Holyrood Secondary, 2005-12; retiring this year.

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Elizabeth Buie

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