Hugh Reilly: Glasgow high school meets The Waltons

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AS SOMEONE who once taught in Glasgow’s Holyrood Secondary school (1993-1999), I watched the first episode of High School, the fly-on-the-wall documentary series, through trembling fingers. I

feared that the television company, maker of The Scheme, would produce the kind of warts-and-all programme that catapults low-lifers to celebrity stardom. Before the TV camera crews rolled up at the Onthank housing estate in Kilmarnock, Marvin Baird was just another thieving drug-dealer with the usual accessories: a junkie girlfriend with a Cornton Vale postcode and a playful bull-terrier. Marvin captured the heart of a nation with a wilting moral compass. However, while other C-listers are happy to open superstores, Marvin found a niche market in opening other folks’ letters stolen from a post box. He is serving four months for his latest lapse in judgment.

To my great relief, High School is as edgy as a repeat showing of Homes Under The Hammer. Tears flowed as I watched a clearly emotional deputy headteacher take an early retirement package and walk straight into the post of education co-ordinator for Mary’s Meals – that’ll teach me never to cut onions while watching telly. The school, we learned, has close links with Malawi, and last year a group of 30 senior pupils visited the stricken country. While I sincerely applaud the good intention behind the trip, it seems to me that the cash outlay on flights would be better spent helping hungry children. The cost of return air fares from Glasgow leaves little change out of £1,000, and according to the Mary’s Meals website, £7 feeds a child for a year. Just a thought.

The programme gave the viewing public some much needed insight into the gerrymandered selection process employed to anoint, sorry, elect a new school captain. Mindful not to muddle young minds with concepts such as openness and democracy, hopefuls were invited to put their names forward for the CV-enhancing post. Behind closed doors, school management compiled a shortlist of candidates and, gadzooks, the outrageously bright and confident lad, who earlier had received glowing praise from the headteacher, won. But the living-on-a-knife-edge drama didn’t end there. A permanent replacement for the Malawi-bound member of the management team had to be appointed. The internal candidate, a highly attractive acting deputy headteacher, competed with a group of external applicants. When the interviewing panel made its choice, the courageous headmaster took it upon himself to inform his female colleague of the outcome. The country held its collective breath until he finally said: “Congratulations!” Cue hugs and kisses (lucky sod!).

Much was said of Holyrood being the largest school in Europe, with around 2,000 pupils. When I taught there, the roll was just under 2,500. With a designed capacity of 1,500, teaching huts were dragged onto the campus. As learning environments go, a jumped-up portable cabin is on a par with the education corner of the Black Hole of Calcutta. From the footage last week, things have improved.

Perhaps due to badly behaved teenagers being chained to the pipes in the basement boiler room, every child who appeared on camera seemed to be auditioning for a spot in The Waltons. It was hard to believe that this is the same school where, in January 2006, the media reported how the headmaster, Tom McDonald, called in mounted police to stamp out lunchtime gang fights.

My heart sank when the focus switched to S1 pupil, Liam, a lad with Asperger’s syndrome, who, in my opinion, was unnecessarily exposed to bullying. It is good practice to place a few primary school friends in the class of a child with any reported difficulty. Bewilderingly, Liam enjoyed no such support network and, inevitably, became a victim of classroom tormentors. Isolated, he ate alone at morning intervals and lunchtime. I earnestly hope that the forthcoming episodes reveal the school has learned from its awful mistake.

From my experience, Holyrood is a successful school with a committed staff and, for the most part, motivated students. It is a comprehensive school in truest sense, taking in kids from leafy Newlands and deprived Govanhill. High School is nothing more than a sideshow.