Obituary: Ian MacGregor

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The Independent Online
Successful headmasters and headmistresses have tended to be less successful in making the transition in middle or late working life into senior administrative responsibility in an education authority. On the less frequent occasions when an administrator, with relatively little classroom experience, is spatchcocked into a headship of a major secondary school, disappointment, sometimes catastrophe, has ensued.

Ian MacGregor negated this rule, and for 18 years, from 1970 to 1988, was the conspicuously successful Rector - Scots headmaster - of the 1,000- pupil comprehensive school of Bathgate Academy. Unquantifiable though influence and actual achievement may be, long-serving effective school heads are of unsung value to a community in particular and society in general.

One element in MacGregor's success was the large range of genuine friends he accumulated in Britain and beyond, and outside the confines of school; I think particularly of his great friend the late Professor John P. Mackintosh MP. MacGregor dreaded getting bogged down as so many good teachers have done in ever narrower educational circles. "My task," he would say, "is above all to extend the horizons of my pupils and the school staff."

MacGregor's father was the UK distributor for 20th Century Fox films and his mother was the first of his four wives. She came from a distinguished firm of whisky brokers and barrel-making coopers. After the First World War in which MacGregor's uncle, serving in the Royal Flying Corps was one of those killed by the German air ace Baron Von Richthofen, they moved to South Gosforth. And shortly after MacGregor was born in 1924 the family moved to Altrincham in Cheshire where he attended the grammar school until his parents divorced and he moved with his mother to Fife and the Belle Baxter School in Cupar.

At that time, there were few boys with English accents in Fife schools and he had a very rough time. Years later when he was headmaster in Bathgate, which had the biggest machine shop under one roof in Europe (Brtish Leyland Truck and Tractor Division), he made sure that boys from Birmingham and other areas of the Midlands did not get the kind of bullying on account of accent which he himself had suffered.

Owing to health problems which were to afflict him throughout his life, he studied at St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities during the Second World War years. In 1946-47 he became president of the Scottish Students Union and as such travelled to Prague before the Communist take-over of Czechoslovakia. One of his lifelong interests was helping people from eastern Europe who came penniless to the West. It was one of the causes of the Scottish Union of Students at the time. Because MacGregor was a counter-suggestible person he stood up to the taunts of his fellow delegates from the National Union of Students that because he didn't accept the left-wing line he must therefore be a neo-fascist. MacGregor replied in kind that SUS was a completely separate body from the National Union of Students.

Winning a place in the Civil Service exam, he spent three years as Assistant Principal in the Ministry of Finance in the government of Northern Ireland. And hated it. "Life in Belfast", he complained, "is all retirement."

So he returned to academia, and after a year at the University of New York studied for the Diploma of Education at Edinburgh University and took Honours in Teacher Training at Moray House College of Education, then under the inspirational leadership of Dr W.B. Inglis.

After a short period as a teacher at Buckhaven High School he joined Edinburgh Corporation Education Department as Assistant working under Dr George Reith, one of the great post-war educational experimenters.

It was at this period that MacGregor learnt that one of the objects of good schooling was to persuade young people to take their own decisions as a preparation to adult life. "Empowerment to do things and take initiatives is what it should be all about," he would say. He also had the ability to speak to his students without patronising them.

In parallel with his educational activities was his formidable contribution to the scout movement in Scotland where he was successively commissioner for the universities, commissioner for venture scouts, and commissioner for relationships.

The scouts in 1980 bestowed their highest honour upon him, "The Silver Wolf", and in 1988, for service to scouting as well as his service to education (as Assistant Director in Aberdeenshire 1959-62, to West Lothian 1962-70, as senior depute director and as a headmaster for 18 years), he was given the OBE. At the end of his life he was active on the board of UCCA (the Universities Central Council on Admissions) and worked long and effectively as general council assessor in Edinburgh University Court.

Tam Dalyell

Ian George Stewart MacGregor, educational administrator and headmaster: born South Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne 29 December 1924; Assistant Principal, Ministry of Finance, Government of Northern Ireland 1947-50; Assistant Director of Education, Aberdeenshire 1959-64; Senior Depute Director of Education, West Lothian 1964-1970; Rector, Bathgate Academy 1970-88; General Council Assessor, Edinburgh University Court 1980-95; OBE 1988; died Bo'ness 15 August 1996.

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