J. Forsyth McGarrity

Innovative Senior Chief Inspector of Schools (Scotland)
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The Independent Online

James Forsyth McGarrity, educationalist and senior civil servant: born Bathgate, West Lothian 16 April 1921; HM Inspector of Schools 1957-68, HM Chief Inspector of Schools 1968-73, HM Senior Chief Inspector of Schools (Scotland) 1973-81; CB 1981; married 1951 Violet Philp (one son, one daughter); died Linlithgow, West Lothian 22 July 2003.

Senior Chief Inspectors of Schools, by dint of authority and personality, are in a position to leave an indelible mark on an education system. Not all do. In the discerning opinion of Bruce Millan - sequentially Under-Secretary of State for the Scottish Office responsible for education, Minister of State, Secretary of State for Scotland and UK Commissioner in the European Community - J. Forsyth McGarrity was one who did.

Between 1957 and 1981, McGarrity served as Schools Inspector, Chief Inspector and finally Senior Chief Inspector for Scotland. "He was extremely able," says Millan, "and really cared about the welfare of all children of all academic capacities."

It was not only "political masters" (possibly a misleading term, given McGarrity's capacity to stand up to all and sundry when he believed himself to be in the right) who thought highly of him. Another heavyweight of Scottish education, James Michie, Assistant Director of Education for Fife under the legendary Douglas Mackintosh, then Depute-Director in Dundee and Director of Education for Grampian Region, recalls:

McGarrity was a first-class educationalist and equally a superb administrator: the two do not always go together. He thought deeply about practical measures for the good of children. And he was very much in charge in his own sphere, prepared to stand up for his professional opinion to local authorities, and the Educational Institute of Scotland, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association and the Scottish Schoolmasters Association, when the circumstances required. One of his great strengths was that he was prepared to step in personally to help any ailing authority, or where there was a long-running difficulty between a Director of Education and the headmasters and headmistresses within the authority.

James Forsyth McGarrity was born in 1921 in Bathgate, West Lothian, the son of a senior foreman in the foundry of George Menzies & Co, later the North British Steel Foundry. The West Lothian foundries had provided most of the high-quality armed plate for the Battle Fleet at Jutland in the First World War, and had a family tradition where technical competence and precision was highly valued in a skilled, and at that time dirty, industry.

McGarrity was educated at Bathgate Academy, where the Rector (headmaster), Robert Brown, had a reputation for promoting high-quality science teaching and for keeping in contact with his able pupils, to extol the virtues of the teaching profession as a career. McGarrity would talk wistfully of the days when teachers were proud of their profession and told me it was Brown who was one of the main influences in steering him into teaching.

At 18 McGarrity volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm and was trained as an Engineer Officer, spending most of the Second World War in Orkney working on Sunderland patrols, hour after hour scouring the convoy routes of the North Atlantic for predatory U-boats. Years later when discussing disciplinary problems in schools, he mused:

It was easy for me coming from the services and working in danger to have an attitude of taking no nonsense whatsoever from any cheeky schoolboy. It is a different matter for those going into school 40 years later, when the discipline of wartime services is a very remote concept.

On demobilisation he took up the place which he had been awarded in 1939 in the Department of Natural Philosophy (i.e. physics) at Glasgow University. The Professor was Philip Ivor Dee, who had become a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 37, had been Superintendent of the Telecommunications Research Establishment in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, 1939-45, and for his work in that field had been a star pupil of Sir Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. McGarrity told me that Dee had suggested that he should do research, but at the age of 28, after six years of war and four years' honours degree, he wanted to earn his living.

After five years of going together, he married a fellow student, Violet Philp, herself a graduate teacher, who was to be his ever supportive wife of 52 years. For eight years he taught physics, first at Wishaw High School in Lanarkshire, then, as head of the physics department, at Hawick High School in Roxburghshire, before joining the inspectorate in 1957.

Whereas the pre-war work of the inspectors had been perceived as disciplinary, and teachers had been in awe of inspectors, McGarrity was attracted to an inspectorate which had developed an ethos of being an encourager and a disseminator. He was proud of the way in which he had been, along with colleagues, an engine of innovation.

Indeed, his Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Office, Sir William Kerr Fraser, remembers that on one occasion he had said gently to his Chief Inspector of Schools that he wondered if there was not too much innovation and that the system should be allowed a period of respite. McGarrity had replied that education in his view was, like human life itself, constantly in a state of change and that it was his job to help understand the change, even if it meant that there was an uncomfortable flux for teachers in the system and complaints from the professional associations.

With the change of government in 1979 McGarrity without question transferred his loyalty to the incoming Conservative educational team of George Younger as Secretary of State and Alex Fletcher as the Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office with responsibility for education.

On 12 February 1981 Younger as Secretary of State moved the Education Scotland No 2 Bill "as the biggest initiative in Scottish education legislation for many years, probably the biggest since the Education (Scotland) Act 1945". He outlined proposals in which McGarrity had played a substantial role for extending the existing programme of vocational preparational schemes. There were also proposals very much in keeping with McGarrity's philosophy of integrating more effectively the works of schools and further educational colleges in Scotland.

Younger paid tribute to the HMI report Teaching and Learning in Primary Four and Primary Seven. He was concerned by the feeling of many teachers that primary education had been left unrecognised and neglected in comparison with much-publicised developments in secondary education, a cause to which McGarrity had devoted himself in the position of Senior Chief Inspector of Schools.

Long after he had retired, Jim McGarrity told me that he had not been at ease with Younger's determination to fulfil Margaret Thatcher's undertaking about admission to schools through the assisted places scheme. "I take the Scottish view that we are all Jock Tamson's bairns."

Tam Dalyell