Don’t wreck legacy of WHEC’s inspiring pioneer

WHEC - a pioneering community school now facing an uncertain future (Pic: Ian Georgeson)
WHEC - a pioneering community school now facing an uncertain future (Pic: Ian Georgeson)

It looks like my old high school is for the chop, just as it should be marking its 40th anniversary.

Wester Hailes Education Centre (WHEC) could be no more if the City of Edinburgh Council presses ahead with its plan for a super campus which pleases no-one but gets them out of a tight corner managing finances and rising numbers.

The one-size-fits-all approach so beloved of unimaginative local authorities would see WHEC and Currie, two schools rooted in very separate communities, closed to create a super school.

I cannot help but wonder what Ralph Wilson would make of this crossroads.

He was WHEC’s first principal, and its driving force.

He was at the helm of a school which, both alphabetically and academically always sat at the wrong end of those wretched exam tables, but he championed each and every child.

An innovator, he banned the belt from day one – long before Scotland’s politicians woke up and realised beating children was simply wrong.

His obituary said he demanded respect not from children, but for children – the exact opposite of Forrester Annexe where I spent first and second years while WHEC was being built.

I hated the grim red-brick building and its nasty wee belt-happy teachers who instilled fear, not respect.

Hardly any of them followed us to WHEC as the new principal, known to all simply as Ralph, built a team to pioneer a very different type of school – one open to the community, with adult students in our classrooms, with a leisure centre open to all and sports facilities used night and day, and all of it under one management.

It was the blueprint for every single community school you will find across the country today.

I suspect the councillors and officers now deciding its fate don’t even know a tenth of the groundbreaking work that went on at WHEC or the man who led it with such infectious passion. To them, it’s just another building to shoehorn into a diminishingbudget.

Ralph is no longer with us to rattle their cages, to bring his perceptive and persuasive approach to the table and win them round through the sheer force of his belief in thinking big and, crucially, taking everyone with him on that journey.

His obituary said he set people free, but he never let them fall. If only we could say the same of our politicians...

I owe Ralph, and the team he led and inspired, pretty much everything.

WHEC was big, exciting and new back then, and it let you be creative.

We set up a school newspaper called Radges Gazette because we thought we were all wee radges. He loved the title and gave us carte blanche to interview anyone, including himself, and told us to write using our own voices.

He replaced the sour-faced, belt happy brigade with teachers who nurtured young minds – and set many of us on the road to success in our chosen careers. For a bunch of scruffy weans from a sprawling housing estate with a bad reputation, we’ve done more than alright.

Forty years on, the council should be celebrating Ralph’s vision – not looking to wind up the school where he helped transform young lives.