Higher and higher: the story of the demise and rebirth of the historic High School in Glasgow

WHEN a group of former pupils from the prestigious High School of Glasgow clubbed together in 1919 to buy a 13-acre patch of land in the city's West End, it was as if they were looking into a crystal ball.

What was at the time designed to be a modern playing field for the school, 50 years later became a lifeline for an establishment which had survived 800 years of educational flux to face its first serious threat: the introduction of comprehensive education and the abolition of state-run, fee-paying schools.

The resulting drive to save the school – the only educational institution aside from Eton and Harrow to produce two Prime Ministers in the 20th century – turned into a serious campaign involving a direct appeal to the Secretary of State, a land battle with Glasgow District Council and the eventual creation of a brand new High School, linked to its predecessor in little else but name.

Now, in The Town School, a book written by former deputy rector Brian RW Lockhart, the full story of the demise and rebirth of the historic High School has been revealed for the first time. With origins dating back to the 12th century, when the Glasgow Cathedral "Sang School" was founded, the school has been a revered educational institution in Scotland's biggest city for generations.

In its days as Glasgow Grammar School, boys learned only Latin grammar and were forced to speak only Latin in the school yard from the age of nine – following a belief that educated young men needed only a firm grounding in the classics and more vocational skills could be learned later in life.

But the industrial revolution soon came, requiring promising young students to have a thorough knowledge of everything from mathematics to bookkeeping. The need for modernisation prompted a name change to the High School in 1834, reflecting its new outlook.

"The High School was the school of the town in the real sense," says Mr Lockhart, who launched his book at the school's annual Fraser Lecture last week. "It was a local authority-run school but anyone who was anyone sent their child there. The school has always had such an ethos of civic pride."

In the 1890s, fees in all elementary schools in Glasgow were scrapped – but a handful of senior school establishments retained their state fee-paying status. In 1918, High School pupils paid as much as 2 per quarter, while by the time of the school's closure in 1976, fees remained a "peppercorn" rate of 8 a term, according to the memories of pupils at that time. Fees now range from just under 2,000 a term for the junior school to 3,232 for senior pupils.

Current rector Colin Mair was a young classics teacher fresh out of college when he joined the High School in the first year of its new incarnation as a fully independent, fee-paying school in 1976. "The school had a long history, but it is only in the last 34 years that it became an independent school," says Mr Mair. "People these days hear our name and think, 'oh yes, that's been around forever,' but they don't realise the independent element of it is relatively young."

The traditional High School has an excellent reputation, boasting UK government leaders Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Andrew Bonar Law among its former pupils, as well as poet Edwin Morgan. Legend also has it that author HG Wells was turned down for a mathematics post in 1892, due to his "unusual" approach to teaching.

But it was the school's semi-state run, semi-fee paying status which was the catalyst for its demise. After years of uncertainty, Glasgow's Labour-controlled cou-ncil – the Corporation of the City of Glasgow – eventually ruled that it was to scrap all local authority-run, fee-paying schools and would either close them – or convert them into comprehensives.

The High School was one of the most high-profile casualties of the move, but others met a similar fate. Glasgow's Girls' High School was renamed Cleveden Secondary School, while similar decisions in Edinburgh a couple of years earlier saw the Royal High School turned into a co-educational comprehensive.

However, Rector David Lees, supported by an army of parents and former pupils, was not a man to give in easily. He lobbied the council to allow the High School to continue in its existing form – and overturn the decision for closure. But in 1973, Mr Lees, a well-known figure in his academic gown who former pupils describe as an "iconic man", made a last-ditch attempt to save a piece of prized Glaswegian history.

When he made his final empassioned plea to Gordon Campbell, then Secretary of State for Scotland, to save the school, he hoped the Conservative minister might be sympathetic to the issue.

But Campbell's hands were tied. In the campaign for the General Election of 1970, the Conservative Party had pledged to give local authorities freedom to set their own policy on education. Just six years later, the school was closed, its buildings turned into a teachers' training facility by the city council and its staff redeployed to other state schools around the city.

"There was nowhere for the fee-paying selective high schools to go after this," explains Lockhart. "The Labour Party was opposed to them and then the Conservative Party wouldn't interfere and stop this happening, so the school closed."

But the Glasgow Former Pupils' Association – led by governing body chairman Lord Norman MacFarlane and former pupil and association president Norrie Thomson, known as "Mr High School" for his efforts to save the school – immediately sprang into action. The group worked to create a new school – an action it had been poised to take since the Education Act of 1918 hinted towards the end of fee-paying state institutions.

"The corporation tried to go to the Court of Session to get the Old Anniesland playing fields, but the land belonged to the Former Pupils Association and it remained so and available to be turned into a school," says Lockhart.

In need of pupils following the departure of many of its own over a long period of an uncertain future, the association soon negotiated a merger with Drewsteignton School in Bearsden. Some pupils transferred to Drewsteignton ahead of the merger, but on 1 July 1976 – a day after the closure of the original High School – the merged institution officially adopted the historic name and the new High School was born.

"This is what makes the High School unique," explains Lockhart. "There's no other example I can think of where a school has been closed, one with a great academic and historic record, then another school of the same name has been created and then in just a generation has become one of the leading schools in the country."

However, while the majority of Drewsteignton's teaching staff stayed on to work for their employer's new incarnation, only one member of former High School staff remained. "I think a lot of them felt it was a risky venture," explains Lockhart, who became deputy rector of the High School in 1981. "They didn't want to give up their local-authority tenure for something which might not have worked. They were also worried that it might have been too much of an English school, like the prep schools down south. They didn't know then it would become more like the old High School."

But for pupils who left the school at the time of its closure, the High School has remained an important part of their lives.

"My recollections are of a great deal of effort on the part of the pupils and the parents to try to save the school," recalls former pupil Melvyn Shanks. "There was a lot of sadness. The school gradually ran down to empty and there was a sense of that lovely big building being depopulated – it was a strange feeling."

Scotsman editor John McLellan, who joined the school as a nine-year-old in 1971, vividly remembers his time there. "There was something special about it – I've always seen myself as a High School boy, even though I was only there for three years," he says. Mr McLellan, alongside other pupils in the junior school, were told early on that they would not be able to take up a place in the secondary school and were forced to make other arrangements, many of the boys moving on to Hutchesons' Grammar School in the city's southside.

A total of 340 pupils – both boys and girls – started at the brand-new building in 1977, but the school roll had swelled to 736 a year later. The opening was a welcome move for those boys, like Shanks, who had transferred from the old High School to spend a year "in limbo" at Drewsteignton.

"A few of us remained part of the High School and went to Drewsteignton, but it didn't feel like the old High School when I was in Bearsden," adds Shanks, now principal of Belmont House school in Glasgow. "Once we moved into the new building, though, it started to have more of a High School feel about it."

Now considered one of Scotland's most successful schools, the High School last year came top of The Scotsman's league table of independent schools, with 94 per cent of pupils passing three Highers.

Whether the hope of Former Pupils' Association president Norrie Thomson will ever come to fruition – that the school will once again become the "Town School" of Glasgow – is uncertain. However, what it is clear is that the words of the school song: To those who follow after, To fill the place we fill...They raise the high tradition, And pass it glorious on, are set to be acted out by generations of High School students to come.