September 24, 2008

Six Decades in Driving Seat of Scots Education

By Fiona MacLeod

THUNDER clouds rumbled ominously above the tram as it trundled through the streets of Aberdeen. For most four-year-olds, the experience would have been frightening, but for one little boy, it sparked a passion that would last a lifetime.

Appearing, as he did, to lack natural fear, it might seem unsurprising that this child grew up to face rooms full of teenagers, as a teacher.

But to those in education, to become a headteacher and face an even more daunting crowd - teachers - would seem an even braver feat.

Eventually, Bill McGregor would go on to become the public face for Scottish headteachers as general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland (HAS).

But six decades on, as he begins his retirement, he is transported back to that tram experience as if it were yesterday.

At that moment, a lifetime passion for buses and trams struck, as if sent by the lightning bolt itself.

Years later he would drive coach-loads of tourists hundreds of miles across Europe, but only for pleasure, as his career would see him drive a very different group of people in a very different way.

Today, after 42 years in education, Mr McGregor can look back over a career spanning major developments, from the inception of comprehensive education to devolution, that he feels transformed the landscape.

"I have two earliest memories," he says. "At the age of four I remember sitting on the wooden seats of a double-decker bus which I now know to be what were called utility buses, built during the Second World War.

"The other memory is of sitting in a tram car in Aberdeen in a thunderstorm and I've been hooked ever since."

He considered a career in transport and even journalism, but a sense of social justice and belief in the union movement led him into education.

After taking an MA in history and economics at Glasgow University, he gained a postgraduate teaching degree from Jordanhill College, long before it became subsumed into Strathclyde University.

And in 1966 he became one of the first in Scotland qualified to teach modern studies, a subject that was introduced in schools the same year.

Mr McGregor's first teaching job was at Kilmaurs School in Ayrshire, but he wasn't long in the classroom before a major development in Scottish education prised him away from the blackboard.

"Kilmaurs was a junior secondary," he explains. "I spent my first two years there, which was extremely invaluable because you were dealing with pupils not all that keen to be in school.

"The system had failed them. They hadn't passed the qualifying examination in primary seven, so in a wee village like Kilmaurs the very able ones went to Kilmarnock Academy for the first year and the rest stayed in Kilmaurs."

It was a system he was glad to see the back of, when a fully comprehensive education system was introduced in 1968.

It has remained a guiding light in Scotland and is still pivotal in shaping educational policy north of the Border.

The change saw the qualifying exam, the equivalent of the English 11-plus, ditched and the distinction between junior and senior secondary schools scrapped.

Mr McGregor says: "It was an unfair system. In theory, if you passed the exam, went to senior secondary and didn't do well, you were moved down to junior secondary.

"But to the best of my knowledge in Scotland that just never happened.

"The result was something like 44 per cent of senior secondary pupils - that's the bright ones - left school without achieving any qualifications whatsoever."

He said the small number of youngsters who improved and moved up to senior secondary still failed to make it fair.

After the disbanding of junior secondaries, Mr McGregor moved to Mainholm Academy in Ayr, where the headteacher, John Pollock, went on to become a general secretary of the EIS teachers' union.

"He was my mentor in the ways of the unions and also styles of management," he says.

By 1971, Mr McGregor was appointed assistant headteacher, known then as assistant rector. Within four years he was deputy head, and when he made the top job at James Hamilton Academy in Kilmarnock in 1989, he felt compelled to sacrifice his membership of the EIS for that of the HAS. "At that stage I realised my interests were no longer compatible with the EIS. They said if there's ever a difficulty in your school we will always support the teacher as opposed to the headteacher," he explains.

Five years later he became Ayrshire HAS representative and convener of the association's parliamentary committee in 2000.

Although not a supporter of devolution beforehand, he says it has changed the face of Scottish education.

"It gave us the opportunity to talk directly to national politicians," he says. "Before, you had to get in touch with the Secretary of State who was based in Dover House in London.

"They were remote. The Scottish Parliament made them accessible."

However, for Mr McGregor, the problem remains that money essentially still comes from the Treasury in London.

For him, independence has become an inevitable next step. "I'm one of these people who believe that once you have set something up you can never go back.

"I'm not a great supporter of Scottish independence, but there is an inevitability about it now, even if it takes 20, 30 or 50 years."

In 2004, Mr McGregor retired as a headteacher and agreed to become the HAS general secretary for a fixed term of four years which has just come to an end. He is now, in retirement, looking forward to returning to his first love - buses - even though he has let his licence lapse.

"I'm going back to writing articles, possibly books, and photographing buses.

"But up to a few years ago I still had a full licence, usually working with tourists, taking coaches around the UK and Europe."

One of his final trips proved a surprise for his passengers. In the summer of 1990, he agreed to take a trip of school children to Austria, only to discover they were from his own school.

How did they react to find their headteacher sitting in the driver's seat? "It was a firm where you had to wear the full uniform so the pupils were very impressed."

He smiles, as if in agreement with the children that being a bus driver is a far cooler job than being a headteacher.

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