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Unexpected champions rally for poor performers

I had often caught sight of the tall, ascetic but robust figure waiting patiently in the queue in the cafe of the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. He seemed remarkably grounded for a bishop, although he obviously enjoyed the delicious fare which attracted more visitors to the gallery than some of its exhibits.

So I felt some tenuous affinity with this intellectual giant when he began to gain national prominence as a champion of the poor and disenfranchised.

The general impression that Bishop Holloway was a radical thinker and an altogether good bloke was confirmed by his recent television series, which featured a particularly derelict corner of Holy Rood's catchment area. Just in case I took refuge in the comforting cop-out of regarding the dispossessed underclass as somebody else's problem, I was starkly reminded that his poor were also Holy Rood's poor.

Bishop Holloway's address to the Edinburgh Conference at the beginning of this month, organised by the city council and TES Scotland, began unpromisingly. When he advised his audience that he would range over a number of philosophers and try to deduce a message for education, about which he claimed to know nothing, I discreetly glanced at my watch and got set for a slice of academic self-indulgence. Attendance at such events has helped to refine the skill of knowing when to press the sleep button, and when to write a few letters under the guise of assiduous note taking.

Bishop Holloway's address was skilful, cogent, thought-provoking and impressive. Devoid of gimmicks, but lightly laced with humour, his power point was not his apparatus, but his eloquence and conviction.

He railed at the inequalities of the privileged Edinburgh society in which his vocation requires him to circulate and attributed exclusion and disempowerment of minorities to the self-satisfaction and indulgence of a comfortably cushioned majority who had a powerful vested interest in keeping arrangements weighted in their favour.

Given the company he shared at the conference, it was intriguing that his analysis called for radical thinking and flexbility of response to groups and individuals, and questioned the validity of the straitjacket of conformity and compliance. He was surely unaware of how well the "one size fits all" school of thought was represented in the conference hall. His impassioned warning of the ticking time-bomb of alienation provoked a lengthy ovation from a diverse congregation.

Sam Galbraith made his final appearance as education minister at the conference. His remark later in the day that it appeared neither he nor Bishop Holloway believed in God was quite funny in an iconoclastic way, but Bishop Holloway's commitment to the underprivileged was indistinguishable from the central message of Christianity.

Our activities in education have become so functional, reactive and utilitarian that it is a welcome relief to hear an argument with some philosophical basis. Even in Catholic schools, our vision of the underpinning aims of our work can be blurred by the incessant demands of the daily round.

Another star of the conference was my old schoolmate, Tony Conroy, head of St Ninian's in Kirkintilloch, whose refreshingly brash style was as welcome as Bishop Holloway's trenchant exposition.

Tony attributed the success of his school to a "reach for the stars" ethos rather than to any wizardry of pedagogical science. "Tell them they're brilliant," avowed Tony, "and they will be." This applied to staff as well as to pupils, and the proof of the pudding is in his school's excellent exam results.

Dermot Dick, stalwart chief of Lothian and Edinburgh Careers Service over many years, was so uplifted by Bishop Holloway's philosophical tour de force and so deliriously elated by the recent success of the Hibees on the football pitch, that he informed colleagues of his intention to retire at Christmas time.

Dermot has been a pioneer of Bishop Holloway's brand of inclusivity. He frequently reiterated in his inimitable basso profundo tones his favourite maxim: "You have to make sure that everybody leaves the party with a balloon."

Pat Sweeney is headteacher at Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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