Iain White, Principal, Newlands Junior College

Interviewed by Russell Leadbetter

IT’S not stretching a point to say that most headteachers and teachers dread the visit of school inspectors. The main teaching union in England recently called for an end to inspections by Ofsted because they lead to too much work and anxiety for staff. Iain White, however, is made of sterner stuff.

He recalls one inspector calling in at Govan High, where he was the headteacher, and telling him that he wasn’t following curriculum guidelines. White pounced: guidelines, he retorted, were just that – guidelines, pieces of advice that he could follow if he so chose.

When inspectors arrived early in 2007, they strongly recommended that the school make changes to better reflect the National Curriculum guidelines – offering much more history, with all pupils studying French up to the end of S4. Such recommendations are generally expected to be obeyed without argument, but a year later, when the council review team asked, "How have you modified the curriculum since the HMI visit?", White replied flatly: "We haven’t."

He says now: “You better believe that caused us a lot of grief, but it was the right thing for most of the pupils at Govan. History was not reintroduced and we did not insist on French after S1. This was a precursor to what we’re now doing at Newlands.” Not for nothing does White see himself as an iconoclast who does not suffer fools gladly

He is speaking in the canteen of Newlands Junior College, entrepreneur Jim McColl’s enterprising, independent establishment. Its roll consists entirely of young people aged 14 to 16 who are disengaged from education but who have it in them to be good apprentices and technicians. White, who relishes his job at Newlands, has long been an outspoken critic of what he laments as the “culture of conformity and stereotyping that has existed for 40 years in our education system since the imposition of comprehensive education,” a culture maintained by the “oppressive presence” of HM inspectors.

White is 62. He was born in Greenock and lived there until four years ago when he did the “absolutely inconceivable thing” and relocated to Gourock. He lives there with his wife and three children, the youngest of whom is just 14 months old.

He was the first person in his family to go to university. His father, Harry, was a great influence on him. Harry had originally wanted to go to university to study medicine but fate decreed that he would be a joiner instead. In later life, however, he trained as a technical teacher and worked in junior secondaries. “One of the big things for him was getting young people into decent jobs,” White says. It’s a philosophy that has long shaped his own approach.

White was at Govan for 20 years and one week. Not that he was counting, of course. When he arrived in 1994, already something of a rising star in Scots education, the school was largely dysfunctional, “characterised by aggression, and a chronic lack of engagement” amongst the pupils. He knew that most of them – “Nixon’s ‘silent majority’” – wanted something better, but he also recognised the nature of the uphill struggle facing him. “Fundamentally, at that school the tail was wagging the dog. You’d have seven per cent of the young people would go on to higher education, and the whole curriculum was tailored towards [them]. The other 93 per cent weren’t doing that. And, of course, you’d couple in the socio-economic profile of the area – unemployment, and whatnot – and in that situation, how do you generate hope among that 93 per cent?”

He got a “semblance of order” into the school and surrounded himself with staff who shared his values. “How do we make a difference? We decided we had to meet the needs and aspirations of the client group while continuing to push the seven per cent onwards. We got in partners that we had from colleges, we got employers in, we got parents and carers in, we got young people in and we said, ‘Right, what should we be doing here?’ The young people said they wanted things that would be useful for them.

“So we knocked that around the senior staff. Then I went into the education headquarters.” Glasgow’s education director at that time was Ronnie O’Connor. White left an envelope for him, containing his proposals. The next day O’Connor sought an urgent meeting with him. When it took place, he told White: “You guys are onto something here.”

In time, Govan High witnessed the launch of a curriculum based on skills development with a vocational focus. “It took young people away from a situation where they had to do stuff,” White says. “We said, by the time you leave here you’ll need a national qualification in English and maths … there will also be religious education, and physical education, and personal and social development. Apart from that, you can do what you like. We then started to move to a situation where young people were coached around the idea that, actually, you can get a job.” Pupils also moved at the pace of their intellect, not at their age.

“I remember, when I was at school, sad person that I am, I used to take novels in with me: I’d read them when I finished class. Occasionally, a teacher would say, ‘What have you got there … That’s very good’. Very seldom did they say, ‘Well, why not try this?’ I was in a situation where, because I was 13 or 14 or 15, that’s what I did. And the madness of this education system is that, with the development for Curriculum for Excellence, the government and its officers and zealots discourage schools from doing that. It’s crazy: it’s absolutely crazy.”

If he thought he was finished with education once his time at Govan came to an end, he was wrong. Jim McColl thought he was the perfect choice to head his new enterprise. The Junior College is based in an office block in Inverlair Avenue; McColl, of Clyde Blowers fame, spent part of his apprenticeship there.

The first group of pupils will graduate on June 22. McColl said last month that the project has already been a success; the college is confident that all 20 of the graduates will get positive destinations – either apprenticeships or full-time places in further education. He wants to see the model becoming embedded in the education system, with greater support from councils and the Scottish Government. Newlands currently receives £100,000 a year from Glasgow City Council over five years, with matched funding from the Scottish Government to set up the facility. McColl is seeking to extend the idea of his junior college into other parts of Scotland.

White shows The Herald around the facility. With its glass walls, calm atmosphere and open aspect, there’s little of the staff-pupils divide you remember from your own school days. White is thrilled with Newlands’ success so far. "It has exceeded expectations. It’s absolutely phenomenal. One of the things that are important to me in life is to be able to move on the basis of a belief, a gut instinct, because you know from your own experience that this is the right thing to do.

“I was involved in the setting up and was able to recruit all the staff myself. Then we recruited the pupils. So everything is in place. You couldn’t have anything better in terms of a set-up.” He did, however, have butterflies in the stomach on the morning of the first formal day with the students.

“Why has the college done so well? Because we’re absolutely doing the right thing in terms of what the young people need … People I know say it’s exactly the sort of thing that has been missing from our education system for years and years. Very importantly, it’s doing well because it’s an independent school, and I’m responsible to a board of trustees. In terms of the education parameters we work within, it’s a case of ‘get on with it’. And we do, because the bottom line is that we have to deliver success. Despite all I’ve done in my previous life working for the council, I couldn’t have dreamed of some place like this. In fact," he adds, as frank as ever, "as we got going, coming to terms with the freedom that we had here was quite difficult.”