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Hugh MacKenzie, headteacher at Craigroyston Community High School from 1972 until 1993, died recently in Edinburgh. Hugh played a major part in making comprehensive education work. A follower of A S Neill of Summerhill and of the psychologist, Wilhelm Reich, he offered a progressive role model for Scottish schools and teachers keen to create a more humane, relationships-based model for schools and learning.

He started teaching in Niddrie Marischal, a junior secondary in Craigmillar, and subsequently in Falkirk, Broxburn, Liberton High and Craigmount, prior to being appointed, in 1972, headteacher at Craigroyston, which served one of Edinburgh’s most deprived communities. He aimed to turn the pre-comprehensive model of the authoritarian and elitist school on its head. A major emphasis on guidance, individualised, inter-disciplinary and resource-based learning, outdoor education, residential trips across Scotland and ultimately far further afield, and certification for all (via the English CSE system) were introduced. He believed that the best teaching resources were outside the school walls.

One former colleague described him as ‘the supreme educator, because of his profound and unshakable belief in his students’. Others have described him as inspirational and supportive, a headteacher who trusted his staff and whose door was always open. He backed, stood alongside, and refused to discipline staff during the industrial disputes of the 1970s and 1980s. Arriving, newly qualified, at Craigroyston in 1973, I was one of the fortunate cohort of young teachers to have been part of the culture he created.

The public and professional view of Hugh was always of the big man with big ideas, the educational strategist, but equally noteworthy are the observations from former students, many of whom have mentioned individual acts of care and kindness.

School pantos, sponsored clean-ups, sponsored walks, community grass-cutting, teachers’ fancy-dress parades and a host of informal events supported a warm, caring, fun-filled atmosphere where sound relationships underpinned successful learning.

He was an inveterate fundraiser, establishing a charitable trust fund to finance the outdoor programme he pioneered. He negotiated a major deal with the Bernard Van Leer Foundation to underwrite Craigroyston’s establishment as a community school. He persistently lobbied the local authority for even more resources. Keith Geddes, who served as Lothian regional councillor, recalls that Hugh regularly used to phone him. Before long, despite Hugh’s regular claim that: ‘This call is not about money’, his automatic response was: ‘What’s it for and how much?’

He led Craigroyston staff to agree to end corporal punishment when teachers across Scotland were actively defending it. He established Craigroyston as a community high school, incorporating a range of services – the Under-5s Centre, adult classes, adult students in school classes, an Adult Basic Education service – and linking with countless local organisations. Post-retiral, Hugh MacKenzie wrote Craigroyston Days, his memoir of his and his staff’s work in a unique school.

Above all, Hugh MacKenzie will be remembered as a headteacher who made comprehensive education work in an educationally-divided city by creating a school based on sound and mutually respectful relationships. Hugh MacKenzie, and his humane vision of schools and learning, would have been anathema to the current crop of educational managerialists, with their unremitting emphasis on statistics, targets and efficiency.


The above article first appeared in The Scottish Review, 27 May 2020

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