Sandy Fraser: Head teacher who pioneered educational cruise ships

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The Independent Online

In the early years of the first Wilson Government, my colleagues elected me Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Education Committee, to work with the intellectually formidable Secretary of State, Tony Crosland.

One evening he had Sir Ronald Gould to dinner in the Members' Dining Room, and asked me to join them. Over the pudding, after I had offered some comment or another, Gould turned to Crosland, "It's all very well" – and "very" was not the word he chose to use on this occasion – "for Tam Dalyell here, who is a Member of the Educational Institute of Scotland, where they have loyal, scholarly, and seriously educationally-orientated officials" (as I had dinner with them often they had made me an Honorary Fellow of the EIS). "But I have an altogether different crew – and Max Morris [then a headmaster and militant communist] – to cope with!"

Crosland's other dinner guest, his favourite civil servant, the powerful-minded Toby Weaver, Deputy Under-Secretary at the Department of Education, chimed in: "John Graham [Obituary, Independent, March 2010], Secretary of the Scottish Education Department, tells me that the EIS officials with whom he has to deal are men of high calibre and sensible judgement."

Fresh from going with him to the NUT annual conference on the Isle of Man – a turbulent and factional-ridden, intensely political jamboree – I explained to Crosland that the EIS Annual Conferences, in the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, were occasions where rigid decorum prevailed, punctuated only by an anticipated "huffing-and-puffing" – a favourite Sandy Fraser expression – from the young David Lambie, an MP but then spokesman of the Glasgow delegation. After one rare altercation, I asked Fraser if he was anxious about what had been said. Came the reply with a twinkle, "Not one per cent as anxious as I was when I had a couple of German U-Boats on my tail in the Bay of Biscay!"

Alexander – he was always Sandy – was born near Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth. His father was captain of a merchant vessel temporarily based there. The family moved to Edinburgh, where he went to school at Trinity Academy, and then Leith Academy, where he became captain of the school rugby team.

Graduating from Edinburgh University in 1938, Fraser went to the teacher-training college, Moray House, and was appointed to the staff of Moray House Demonstration School – a tribute to his talents.

Only there for a few months, Fraser volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1939. Quickly, he became a senior navigating officer, undertaking navigating patrols in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. He was mentioned in despatches for his work in the Bay of Biscay: "the concern was not only U-Boats based at Lorient and St Nazaire, but the prospect of the Grieisenau, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen emerging from Brest and creating mayhem among the convoys". After his experiences on the bridge, Fraser was unflappable. To use one of his favourite, colourful Scots expressions, he kept "a calm soul" in all he did.

After participating offshore in the landings at Sicily and Salerno he was again mentioned in despatches, for his work in mine-sweeping in the Mediterranean and the Aegean. Offshore at the Normandy landings, he ended the war on convoy protection in the Indian Ocean and took part in operations off Rangoon, for which he was awarded a Burma Star.

On demobilisation, he was promoted to Commander and made second-in-command of the Rosyth Royal Naval Reserve until 1958, after completing his Dip. Ed. at Moray House and a BSc in London. After a brief spell as deputy head of Inch Primary School came promotion to headmaster of Lossiemouth Secondary School.

None of us ever found out how Fraser voted, but while at Lossiemouth he initiated an imaginative project, to explore the life of the first Labour Prime Minster, Ramsey MacDonald, who was born and brought up there. On a number of the EIS deputations to the House of Commons, drawing on his experience of being the headmaster of a large number of children whose fathers were stationed at RAF Lossiemouth, he did not mince words with the politicians: we had an obligation to provide funds and urge local committees to make equal educational arrangements for service children.

Ronnie Smith, the current General Secretary of the EIS, told me, "As Assistant Secretary and later Deputy General Secretary of the EIS, Sandy was a key figure in maintaining the profile of the EIS as the leading education and professional body in Scotland. A major part of his contribution was in taking forward the curriculum, especially in primary schools during a period of substantial change."

Brought up in the strict religious tradition, Fraser became the first Convenor of the Primary Syllabus Revision Committee on Religious Education. I listened to him in 1965 make a persuasive case to Harold Wilson's Secretary of State for Scotland, William Ross, in favour of RI (Religious Instruction) being made an examinable subject.

I, and the million schoolchildren who travelled on educational cruises from ports such as Greenock, Southampton and Tilbury, owe Fraser a huge debt. He was superb in handling lady teachers, and it was he who persuaded the formidable EIS presidents, Pearl Kettles and Helen Hyndman Dewar, that my somewhat immature book The Case for Ship-Schools was "not so daft". Without their backing and support, the first schools would not have encouraged their 12-15-year-olds to participate in the Dunera educational cruise-ship project of the British Indian Steam Navigation Company. Fraser also put in a good word for the scheme with his friends from naval days, Sir Colin Henderson and Sir Donald Anderson, managing directors of BI's parent company, P&O. Without Fraser, there would have been no Dunera, no Devonia, no Nevada, no Uganda, on which many older readers were likely to have travelled on their first excursion abroad.

Alexander Fraser, naval officer, headmaster and educationist: born Portmahomack, Easter Ross 22 March 1917; Royal Navy 1939-1946; Headmaster, Lossiemouth Secondary School; Deputy–General Secretary, Educational Institute of Scotland; married Mary Ross (one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 6 April 2010.