Obituary: Andrea Gail McCail, early years education champion

Gail McCail: Daughter's nursery concerns sparked a career in early years education
Gail McCail: Daughter's nursery concerns sparked a career in early years education
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Born: 5 July, 1933 in Leeds. Died: 25 June, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 80

WHEN Gail McCail’s young daughter found settling at nursery a challenge, it was the catalyst that sparked a lifetime’s interest in early years education and fuelled a passion for the field that ultimately improved the experiences of countless children and their parents.

McCail, a former journalist and English teacher, who was inspired by the work of playgroup movement pioneer Belle Tutaev, went on to make a study of Edinburgh private nurseries, work with the Scottish Council for Research in Education and play a leading role in educational development initiatives in the capital.

As a director of Play-Base Edinburgh and Home-Start, her fine intellect, sharp mind and deep understanding of the pertinent issues were invaluable to her colleagues, who admired her tireless drive and enthusiasm, coupled with her innate elegance.

Andrea Gail McCail, known as Gail, was born in Leeds where her father’s family owned the Leeds Fireclay Company. She was educated at Littleburn Prep School at Menston-in-Wharfdale and Moira House School in Eastbourne, spending part of her education at Bowness on Lake Windermere to where the school was evacuated during the Second World War, an interlude that left her with an enduring love of the Lake District.

She qualified for university a year earlier than most, arriving at St Andrews as a slender, blonde 17-year-old, unaware that she was already a beauty. By that time, her writing talent had become evident: while still at school she had had a short story published in the literary magazine John O’London’s Weekly and during her university studies she contributed poems to the college magazine.

She graduated with honours in English in 1954, having been librarian of the Women’s Union and won the annual prize for the women student who had contributed most to university life.

An aspiring journalist, her first job after university was with the Glasgow-based agency Scotnews. She was soon transferred to the Fleet Street office but, following the collapse of the agency a year later, she opted to switch to a more secure career in education, undertaking an Oxford University diploma in education course from which she graduated in 1956.

By the time she began teaching English at St Mary’s Anglican convent school in Wantage, she had married one of her St Andrews contemporaries, Ronald McCail, a student she had manage to irk by coming out ahead of him in the first terminal examination of their first year. He considered himself something of a Latinist and young Gail, who had despaired of passing the exam by orthodox methods, had learned the translations of both set texts – Cicero’s De Senectute and Virgil’s First Georgic – by heart. It was a skill honed at Moira House, thanks to her headmistress’s penchant for choral speech, and as a result of which she had hundreds of lines of English poetry running through her head, her sense of rhythm, her understanding of the meaning of difficult sentences and her crystal-clear enunciation making her an inspiring reciter.

When her husband’s work took him to Manchester University, the couple lived in Cheshire where her two elder children, Theodora and Chad, were born in Cheadle in 1960 and 1961. Theo was a shy child and on starting nursery school would only stay if her mother also remained – a situation that prompted the start of her mother’s interest in childhood education.

A letter in the Manchester Guardian by Belle Tutaev, founder of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, further stoked her interest in the pre-school playgroup movement that was just emerging and, when the family moved to Edinburgh, McCail chose educational provision in Edinburgh private nursery groups as the subject of her research dissertation for an MSc degree, which she was awarded in 1969.

In 1973, she became the Scottish Pre-School Playgroups Association’s part-time training officer for the Borders, Forth, Fife and Tayside regions. When Lothian Region initiated its Home Visiting scheme – designed to encourage mothers to play a more active role in promoting the educational development of their children – she was an obvious choice to take a leading role.

She wrote a book, Mother Start, describing the procedures adopted during home visits and profiling the visitors. It was published in 1981 by the Scottish Council for Research in Education to which she was seconded for two years, working with the educationalist John Raven. More recently she had been enthusiastically involved as a director of both Play-Base Edinburgh, a charity encouraging the personal development of parents and carers through quality child development training, and Home-Start Leith and North East Edinburgh, which supports parents with young children at home.

A committed Christian and member of Edinburgh’s St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, she helped to run its bookstall and was a member of several study groups. In retirement, she rose daily at 6am and spent several hours reading the Old Testament and the Christian Mystics and modern works of practical theology.

Predeceased by Theo in 2003, McCail, is survived by her husband Ronald and two sons Chad and Matthew.