Hugh Reilly: Cultural icon? Send in the bulldozers

Abronhill High School in Cumbernauld
Abronhill High School in Cumbernauld
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AMBITIOUS plans by the owners of a chip shop in Cumbernauld to expand into the fried Mars bar market were thrown in disarray when North Lanarkshire Council announced the proposed closure of nearby Abronhill High School.

One angry parent, distraught Dereck Sharpe, said: “The chip shop relies on the custom of the pupils and I can’t see it surviving if there is no Abronhill.” Safe to assume, then, that a hunger strike will not form part of any pupil protest against the plan. Obese children at the threatened comprehensive complained that transferring to Cumbernauld High school would entail a two-mile walk that could result in weight loss and increased fitness.

Keeping the school open to ensure the viability of a fast food outlet is a powerful, if unique, argument. However, there are other compelling reasons why this education establishment must be saved. A fifth-year student spoke for many when she said: “Nobody wants to have to go to another school – lots of the pupils are scared of having to do that.” Callous councillors seem to have conveniently ignored the fact that pupils at Abronhill have already endured the trauma of moving school – from primary to secondary – and that any further movement may induce flashbacks of that horrendous experience.

Cocooned in the comfort of their Abronhill bubble, it has been a triumph of the will that some senior students have found the mental strength to feel the fear and enter universities in far off Glasgow, some 17 miles distant. Rumours persist that some have even ventured as far as Dundee and, perhaps less credibly, Aberdeen University.

In 1981, the Scottish film Gregory’s Girl proved that a small country was more than capable of producing creative work as bad as any Hollywood turkey. Shooting on a low budget, a fact that shone throughout the film, the makers of Gregory’s Girl used Abronhill as the backdrop to a coming- of-age feature starring the then unknown, and now unknown, Dee Hepburn. Her artistic decision not to study at New York’s famous Stanislavski method school of acting, but instead concentrate on learning from Mummy Woodentop, ensured a performance that would not be easily forgotten by anyone who witnessed it. Her film debut became a springboard for a three-year stint in Crossroads, where she regularly bumped into the reception desk and unerringly fluffed her lines.

Campaigners claim that Abronhill is a part of our cinematic cultural heritage. On his Twitter account, writer Ian Rankin opined: “Surely the school where Gregory’s Girl was filmed should have protected status or be declared a national monument.” I say it’s not so much an iconic film location, more of a crime scene.

In my opinion, there is only one reason why Abronhill should avoid the axe. Back in the Eighties, my under-13 football team played a game on the hallowed blaes pitch where only months earlier, cameras had caught Dee doing keepie-ups to the delight of a gormless John Gordon Sinclair. My largely immobile centre half, Martin “Bo” Boyle, who had he been a car would have been clamped, inadvertently scored from the centre circle when he attempted a huge clearance. Sadly, for the next ten games or so, he endeavoured to repeat his fluke goal, without success.

When I was a supply teacher, I briefly taught in Abronhill. I found the staff to be very welcoming and the pupils a pleasure to teach. The building, designed by an architect clearly inspired by Stalinist era Soviet schools, was a tad drab. In terms of government vandalism, bringing in the bulldozers will hardly be on a par with the Taleban’s destruction of Buddhist statues.

Some schools inevitably close when financial stringency and pupil demographics collide. Cumbernauld High and Abronhill High have a combined capacity of 2,046 yet the roll of each school is 640 and 486 respectively.

Nostalgia and sentimentality are not reasons to keep a school open. My former secondary, spookily called St Gregory’s, closed in 1991 and I don’t lose sleep over it. Before the school could be demolished, it was burned down in a mysterious fire.

When the chips are down, most North Lanarkshire council taxpayers will support the decision to close Abronhill.