Ronnie McGowan remembers the vital and life-changing role outdoor centres played in his life and the lives of his pupils, and says for the sake of future generations Labour must pledge in its 2021 manifesto to keep Blairvadach open.
Harold Wilson was gone, Jim Callaghan was steadying the ship and David Howell prayed for rain during the scorching summer of ’76 as the heatwave turned to drought. ABBA were on the Money, Money, Money.
By the middle of August a new dawn was breaking over Springfield Road in the east end of Glasgow, heralding the start of a teaching career for two young hopefuls.
We started our first jobs on the same day; I was teaching maths in Room 3 which opened onto the playground, Wilma was teaching Drama in a hut alongside the banks of the river Clyde. The school’s name blended perfectly with the contours of the river, Riverside Secondary it was called and we threw ourselves into the work: school shows, football teams, Christmas raffles, we went on courses together and in between managed to get in some teaching.
A little over a year later we were volunteering together to take a group on a week-long excursion to Faskally outdoor centre, in a Perthshire beauty spot. The centre was part of Strathclyde Regional Council Education department.
The pupils were ‘hand-picked’ for us – third year pupils, mainly fourteen year olds. We knew them all, as Riverside was a small intimate school, and if you want to read ‘hand-picked’ as ‘somewhat challenging’ you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
The journey north was shared with a party from Govan High school and their biology teacher, who would be doing some field work. Our lot were there for the great outdoors experience, trekking, canoeing, map-reading, eating, sleeping (sort of) and learning to live together in perfect harmony.
Likewise, Wilma and I were learning about each other, when to intervene and when not to, about our strengths, weaknesses, decision making, looking after each other’s backs. Sometimes that’s called building trust, trust between two professionals followed by trust with and between pupils. A priceless commodity worth its weight in gold. Pupils will even trust a teacher to look after their camera while canoeing. That was a misplaced trust as I managed to capsize into the freezing loch.
The staff at the centre were highly qualified and professional and the head of centre didn’t baulk from telling us , on day one, that the pupils were too noisy. And here were the two novices thinking things were going swimmingly! So we had to work harder at being better, that’s called a ‘rapid learning curve’.
Over breakfast on the second morning there was a distinct change in our small-talk with the head of centre. A much more conciliatory tone was evident in his voice, for no apparent reason. The same racket to him, the same silence to us was emanating from the breakfast tables over our shoulders.
He then began telling us about a television programme he’d watched the previous evening. The programme was an exposé of life in Lilybank, an area just east of Parkhead Cross taking in streets of tenements all the way to London Road and part of the school’s catchment. There were children in our group who were from Lilybank. Neither of us had given that a second thought. They were just Rivvy kids to us, we worked on a shared belief of focussing on the child not the background.
The programme was controversial, highlighting the poverty in the area. No great revelations there. The controversy was in the production technique of the documentary. Kay Carmichael, the influential Labour adviser and reformer, had gone to live incognito in Lilybank for several months with the purpose of making the programme. The ethics of this were challenged but that was one for the chattering classes; our immediate concern was clearing of breakfast tables.
The impact the programme had on Faskally’s head was telling. He too was on a learning curve, and now with a different understanding of and context for the children who had arrived twenty-four hours earlier.
Everyone was learning, everyone was developing, everyone was changing. Everyone was getting better. Never give up.
There are ex-pupils, now well into middle age, who will gleefully remind me of the camera incident, a human link to the past, but relevant today. That’s important in life, and important to me and these ex- pupils. It’s important because my trusted friend, Wilma, died too young, a life too short, but those ex-pupils never forget her passion and dedication. She was instrumental in making the trip so memorable.
It was a terrible decision to close Faskally outdoor centre.
Fast forward forty-three years to the school I’m currently working in. It’s in Glasgow, it’s in Royston, locally known as the Garngad, ‘God’s Garden’.
There’s a new generation of teachers embarking on that self-discovery of taking a group of children to an outdoor centre, teachers who for that duration go the extra mile beyond that extra mile, and some. It’s cold, it’s January and they are taking a group of senior pupils on a study weekend to Blairvadich, in preparation for the exam diet in May. The pupils are excited, they told me so. They also warned me against telling the teachers, one a maths colleague, that they were smuggling an electric kettle to partake of midnight pot noodle. It’s life’s simple things. I did alert them though that the Faslane military police were expertly trained to detect such transgressions, so to watch out. One pupil went out of her way to come and ask me for some extra maths to take with her.
In these small exchanges were the essence of places like Blairvadach. Camaraderie, innocent enjoyment, doing something different, building friendships, learning about themselves, learning about others; all worth its weight in gold but priceless. These young people from God’s Garden returned home better people, and I guarantee they’ll remember that weekend for the rest of their lives. The teachers returned to school better teachers; they’ll remember it for the rest of their careers.
The decision to close Blairvadach is a very bad one. It doesn’t need saved, it’s those instructors in the outdoor centres who hand out the lifejackets after all, but it should remain open.
The Labour Party should pledge now, and put it into the 2021 Holyrood manifesto, that Blairvadach will remain open, funding it directly if necessary.
There was a great song in 1977 sung by David Soul with a line which chimes with the thinking behind the likes of Blairvadach,
‘Don’t give up on us, I know,
We can still come through.’
Never was it so necessary than today for the Labour party to stand up and fight and fight and fight again for those children, families and communities who have over the decades benefitted from places like Blairvadach.
Don’t give up on them, because I know they do come through.