Sister Doreen Grant SND, CBE, BA, Med, PhD: An appreciation

I AM unsure if the first thing I remember about my aunt Doreen is an actual recollection or one of those pieces of family lore so often recounted that it becomes ingrained in the psyche as an actual memory.

It is of a figure in the full, austerely black habit of a Notre Dame nun sparking my curiosity to such an extent that, sitting on her knee in the convent, I stretch my hand under her veil to check if she had hair like everyone else. While she certainly had the hair she was really not quite like everyone else.

Doreen Grant was born on September 27, 1927, in the south side of Glasgow. The fifth daughter of John and Jessie Grant, she often spoke of her very happy childhood home where her mother dispensed wisdom but firm discipline and her father patience and fun.

She attended Holy Cross Primary and was an early pupil in Holyrood Secondary. In 1944 she enrolled in Notre Dame College of Education and, on graduating, began her teaching career in St. Bonaventure’s Primary in the Gorbals. It was here that her eyes were first opened to poverty and its effect on early learning.

Having completed her two-year probationary teaching period she headed to Ashdown Park, Sussex, to begin the novitiate in the Sisters of Notre Dame. Later, she taught in Sheffield and in All Hallows Secondary Modern School in Speke, Liverpool. It was here, in 1968, that she was awarded the CBE for her innovative work in education.

Among other things, she introduced the new concept for the time of workplace experience and vocational training, having persuaded local businesses to provide the necessary materials for the students to gain competence in their chosen area and on conclusion offer them employment.

Doreen helped establish a new Notre Dame house in Cumbernauld and completed both her Masters of Education Degree from University of Liverpool and a BA in Scottish History from Glasgow University in 1974.

It was later in 1974 that she began her Stairhead Seminars in the so-called “Wine Alley” area of Govan which led, in 1976, to the Govan Project. This work was focused on parent-child interaction and on school and community partnership in education.

The process began with an informal chat to small groups of mothers in their own homes; fathers were invited but did not join in till much later. The first discussion concerned the description of a black pudding and from there, using various props and active learning scenarios, including “paper people”, family-night activities, picnics and trips to the seaside, the importance of developing good communication skills was established.

The Govan Project blossomed but the enthusiasm of the local authority, as outlined in Doreen’s doctoral thesis, was not always evident, and as funding was coming to an end in 1979 the project drew to a close.

It was now that Doreen headed to America and travelled widely, assessing various programmes being undertaken there, and she returned with renewed vigour to begin her next project.

She was given some rooms in an old school by the Education Department and funding from various trusts to get the Summertown Centre up and running. Although the relationship with the council was often fraught with problems, Doreen carried on regardless and in 1979 she received £250,000 from the Van Leer Foundation in The Hague, enabling the project to be expanded to Priesthill.

Achieving her doctorate in 1987 and having her book, Learning Relations, published in 1989, she felt she had driven the project forward on a secure footing and decided that she was ready to open the next chapter of her life.

She and Sister Janet McKenna, a Sister of Mercy, inaugurated the Family Faith Centre. Her intention was to use the experiences developed in the earlier projects to work with families, schools and parishes to help children prepare for the sacraments. The programme was adopted widely in Scotland and England and is still running in many parishes today.

Doreen loved Scottish history, particularly the history of Glasgow. She often took relatives from all parts of the world on tours when they visited and left them with an informative hand-out completed on her home computer, a skill at which she excelled.

She was the first in the family to enter the exciting world of genealogy and she relished arranging and participating in Family Gatherings. Sadly her light began to dim with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and in 2015 Doreen moved into the Notre Dame care home in Liverpool, where she received an extraordinary level of care and where she peacefully passed away on November 5.

She continually told everyone that she was “keen to find out what happened next”. When asked to clarify this she said she was interested to see how heaven was organised. St Peter is no doubt aware that Doreen has now arrived.

Sister Doreen based much of her educational philosophy on that of Paulo Freire, a professor of education at the University of San Paulo in Brazil; and it seems fitting to end with a quote with which Doreen would no doubt agree. “Through dialogue, reflecting together on what we know and don’t know, we can act critically to transform reality”. She certainly managed to do that in her 93 years.

Pat Thomson