Obituary: Alexander McLellan, educationist

Alex McLellan
Alex McLellan
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Born: 28 May, 1921, in Greenock. Died: 29 August, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 91.

As A Scots educationist, Alex McLellan enjoyed an enviable and truly international career of global renown.

It took him from Renfrewshire, Aberdeen and Angus to India, Africa, Thailand and back to Scotland, only to see him take off to Sri Lanka and Pakistan in so-called retirement.

Among the legions of students, politicians and diplomats he encountered on his extensive travels was Pandit Nehru, then embarking on the early years of his tenure as the first prime minister of an independent India.

They met in the 1940s while McLellan was a member of the British University Debating Team on a trip to Pakistan, India and Ceylon, under the auspices of the British Council. McLellan was already a British Indian Army veteran of the Second World War, and a fluent Urdu speaker who would return to the Indian subcontinent many times over the ensuing decades.

The son of a ship’s plater, he grew up in Greenock, where he was Dux of Belville Place Primary and attended Greenock High School before studying English and history at Glasgow University. He graduated with an MA degree just three weeks before his 19th birthday and went straight into the Royal Artillery Regiment’s officer training camp at Woolwich.

Promoted through the ranks to captain and adjutant, in the 7th Rajput Regiment of Artillery in the Indian Army, he served during the Second World War in Bangladesh and Bombay, mainly with the Punjabi Musselmen who made up half his regiment. After being demobbed, he returned to Glasgow University and completed his honours degree in 1948. It was while doing his post-grad teaching qualification at Jordanhill College of Education the following year that he visited the Indian subcontinent with the debating team.

He went on to teach English, history and geography in Renfrewshire primary and secondary schools, including Paisley Grammar. And, having been a member of the Boys’ Brigade in his youth and retained links with the movement, he became Greenock Battalion president.

In 1955 he married Muriel, the sister of an old school friend, and the following year his career changed course when he returned to Glasgow University for a third time and graduated Master of Education.

The couple moved to Aberdeen in 1957 when he became assistant director of education for the city. Seven years later his work took them to Forfar, where he was deputy and then director of education for Angus County Council, where he oversaw a hugely successful decade for the region’s schools.

During his time there he transformed education, taking the council’s spending per head on the service from one of the lowest in Scotland to one of the highest of the rural councils. Every secondary school had either been rebuilt or was scheduled for rebuilding. He and his team also overhauled the curriculum and created centres of excellence, in what was described in an Inspectorate report as “a story of success”. Justifiably proud of his contribution, he continued his own personal development, taking an advanced course in local government administration through Birmingham University. An able and hardworking man who inspired loyalty from his colleagues, he went on to become a Fellow of the British Institute of Management and member of the British Association for Educational Management and Administration and the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland.

In 1975 he became a lecturer in educational management at the Scottish Centre for Education Overseas, at Moray House College of Education in Edinburgh, which entailed numerous foreign assignments. It suited his love of travel and languages – in addition to Urdu, he could hold a conversation in Swahili, Bangla and Sinhala.

He delivered a range of courses and seminars: in the Seychelles and Maldives for the Ministry of Education in Male; in Dar es Salaam for the Tanzanian education ministry; and in Pakistan, Malaysia and the Gambia for World Bank education projects.

In 1981, at the age of 60, he was appointed director of the Scottish Centre for Education Overseas, becoming responsible for more than 300 foreign students from 45 countries. He was also involved in designing courses and curricula and negotiating and securing contracts with government representatives in embassies, high commissions and donor agencies at home and abroad, as well as consultancy work in developing countries.

Again his travels took him to familiar territory in Bangladesh – where he and some colleagues insisted on going in 1982, ignoring a military coup – Pakistan, Malaysia and Tanzania, and to Thailand, Cameroon and Sudan, sometimes accompanied by Muriel. During the late 1970s and early 1980s he was also chairman of the Royal Over-Seas League.

Although he retired from Moray House at 65, he immediately returned to work as a consultant in educational management at the Ministry of Education Staff College for Educational Administration in Maharagama, Sri Lanka. It was a post he held for four years, until he was appointed as an adviser in education and management and a mission leader for a World Bank project to encourage the development of primary education in Pakistan.

He finally brought the curtain down on his international career in 1994, though he retained his wanderlust, enjoying a holiday to Kathmandu and a cruise that took in a trip on the Amazon. He was known for his letters and postcards providing friends with a witty and insightful commentary on his travels and was fortunate to have had a lifetime of good friendships to sustain him after being widowed ten years ago.

A man with a keen sense of humour, he enjoyed games and challenges, particularly the ritual contest with one friend in which they vied to outdo each other in a challenge to identify the most obscure bottle of whisky procured by the other. The score isn’t recorded, but having been defeated by an Old Pulteney from the mainland’s most northern distillery, in Wick, he gained his revenge: stumping his opponent with a Bladnoch from Scotland’s most southern distillery, in Galloway.

He is survived by younger sister Betty, nieces and nephews.

ALISON SHAW