Obituary: Hugh Fairlie

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The Independent Online
Hugh Fairlie, educationalist: born Maybole, Ayrshire 14 December 1919; Assistant Director of Education, Morayshire 1949-52; Assistant Director of Education, Fife 1952-57; Deputy Director of Education, Renfrewshire 1957-64, Director 1964-75; Chairman, Scottish Council for Research in Education 1974-84; Lecturer, Jordanhill College of Education 1975-82; OBE 1984; married 1947 Jemima Peden (two sons); died Paisley 5 July 1993.

IF SCOTTISH schooling has a world- wide reputation for seriousness of purpose, innovation, discipline, and academic quality in a changing educational world, credit should go to a group of directors and deputy directors of education who advised their local authority education committees to appoint and promote teachers of conviction to key posts in schools. Prominent among this elite at senior level for 35 years was Hugh Fairlie. He brought drive, vision, and clarity of mind to a mosaic of important educational roles and his opinions carried considerable weight with his colleagues.

In the autumn of 1961, as a director of studies, I was responsible for giving introductory talks about the ship school Dunera on the elementary principles of navigation to the 800 pupils who came on fortnightly school cruising. Over the previous four months, I fondly imagined that I had perfected the technique. Late at night early in the voyage, Fairlie took me aside and for a couple of hours dissected my presentation - and offered typically constructive suggestions.

Thenceforth the subsequent pupils had a far greater comprehension of the subject matter. No one was more qualified than Fairlie. A First Class honours student of the Department of Natural Philosophy (Physics) at Edinburgh University, Fairlie had joined the Admiralty service early in 1941. Sent to Havant in Hampshire, he was according to contemporaries one of the leading brains in devising countermeasures to the new German weapons. In particular he worked on decoys to pressure mines and acoustic torpedoes. Before D-Day it was absolutely essential to sweep the Channel for pressure mines and it was Fairlie and his colleagues, using hand grenades and tubes from Belisha beacons, who made a safe passage possible for the great armada.

Fairlie's first post after the war was as a maths and physics teacher at Carrick Academy, at Maybole in Ayrshire, where he had grown up as one of the sons of a well-respected master baker. In Maybole he is remembered for having challenged a prevalent opinion that it was hardly worth teaching maths to less able pupils. On the contrary, Fairlie believed that since a grasp of basic mathematics was the pre-condition of a capacity to cope with so many jobs, there was a solemn obligation to teach maths properly to every pupil.

Appointed as Assistant Director of the Moray Education Authority on the Moray Firth at the precocious age of 29, Fairlie progressed up the education ladder in Scotland. Three years later, he joined the team, led by the celebrated and formidable Dr Douglas Mackintosh, in Fife, where he was one of the pioneers of the Cuisenaire method of teaching mathematics, an ingenious system of using wooden rods, to give understanding of fundamental maths, to those many pupils who found it difficult to abstract.

In 1957 Fairlie was again promoted to the post of Deputy Director of Education for the populous county of Renfrewshire, with the understanding that he would succeed to the top job in 1964. In his 18 years in Renfrewshire Fairlie was in the opinion of the cognoscenti of Scottish education outstandingly successful in overseeing the building of new academies and the primary schools for the children of the boom years, with a deft regard for the delicate requirements in the west of Scotland of the Roman Catholic Church, whose educational rights are guaranteed under a 1918 Act of Parliament. That Renfrewshire made some of the most effective arrangements in Britain for rendering the raising of the school leaving age worthwhile was largely due to Fairlie's conviction that every child, however academically endowed, had rights. Fairlie focused the minds of his colleagues in developing comprehensive schools of a kind to suit the needs of the predominantly working- class communities in the shipbuilding areas of the west of Scotland.

Conscious that teachers could after a few years get into a rut, or what John Stuart Mill called 'the deep slumbers of decided opinions', Fairlie was one of the prime movers in the establishment of in-service provision and of teachers' centres. Members of the profession who might have felt slightly insulted by the notion of refresher courses, professed themselves enthusiastic not least on account of the fact that Fairlie made it his business to know many hundreds of school staff by name and explained why 'we all need rejuvenation'.

In the Fairlie years, Renfrewshire became famous for its outdoor educational centres. In 1975 the convener of the Examining Board, in conferring a fellowship of the Educational Institute of Scotland on Fairlie, said in his formal oration: 'He leaves Renfrewshire in excellent condition and we are fully aware that many a man would have done much less for educational service and for teachers in general and would still have been regarded as having done more than his duty.'

On a British level, Fairlie was one of the advisory committee to British India Steam Navigation company and P & O who ran the ship schools Dunera, Devonia, Nevasa, and Uganda. He earned golden opinions from my then employers the discerning board members of P & O-BI at headquarters at Aldwych. In 1975 Renfrewshire became part of Strathclyde region and Fairlie decided that he did not wish to continue to run schools in the absence of powers that he had had for so long. He accepted an invitation to become a lecturer at Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow, adding a practical dimension to the studies undertaken by the young teachers at training college. From 1978 to 1984, while he was a lecturer at Jordanhill, he was also the chairman of the Scottish Council for Research in Education. In 1984 he was appointed OBE.

Fairlie was an active member of the oldest and perhaps most prestigious of all Burns clubs - the Paisley Burns Club. He was a considerable Burns performer, much in demand throughout Scotland and overseas. For over 45 years he had a wonderfully happy marriage to Mima Peden and had a close family relationship with his sons John and Hugh and their families.

(Photograph omitted)

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