GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

A father’s role

Dads today are encouraged to become more involved in their children’s education, but it wasn’t always so

Donald S Murray

There was one occasion in my young life my father donned cloth–cap and cycle clips and pedalled off in the direction of our local primary school. This all happened on an unusual day: one when I had been accused of something of which I was entirely innocent. One, too, when the village boys had come home with me to echo my outrage at the wrong that had been done. It was this self–righteous chorus that probably convinced him that he had no choice but to undertake this journey. We stood and watched him as he brought his cycle out from the barn, wheeling it up the brae to the local hall and downhill to the school. It was a course of action that brought me one of life’s little satisfactions. Shortly afterwards, the headmaster did the unthinkable and confessed he had been wrong in his actions.

“It wasn’t Donald,” he admitted.

Yet, looking back, it is the fact that my father actually stepped within the school grounds on that early evening which was the most remarkable aspect of that particular day. He only did this on one other occasion I can remember – when I enrolled at the secondary school in Stornoway, our main town, atthe age of 12. At my interview there, he bowed, smiled and nodded his head at the rector’s wisdom – and said almost nothing. A moment or two later and he stepped out of the building’s doors relieved, probably, that he would never have to walk through them again.

And so, he never did. Not for parents’ evenings, school concerts or even the few occasions when I managed to convince myself (and others) that I was likely to become the new Hebridean version of Sir Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton when I grew up.

My father was unusual in all of this in only one way. He was a single parent, occupying, what was then, a unique role in bringing up my brother and me from early childhood. Nobody was divorced in the parish in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Everyone assumed that a mother was an essential element in the rearing of a child. It was a supposition that even the State shared. Until the mid–Seventies, the single parent allowance was paid only to women. It was believed that if a wife ever died or “bolted” (in the language of that time), there was a simple, clear solution. The man could just go out and find another to provide care for his bereaved and grieving offspring.

Qualifications achieved by individuals like me- from working- class parents- have fallen dramatically over the last few years


While this might have been the answer for politicians and aristocrats, it was one with which my father felt deeply uncomfortable. As someone who had left school at the age of 14, his unease was, probably, at its greatest when dealing with our education. At that time, it was mothers – sometimes admittedly with husbands attached – who attended parents’ evenings, dealt with any bother that might arise. They were certainly the ones who sat in the hall when their sons and daughters appeared on stage, whether to perform Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh impersonations or to receive the glittering prizes of academic life. No doubt his discomfort was increased, too, by his awareness of his own social background. He, after all, was a weaver; they possessed a university education. They drove cars; he only had a bike.

In some ways, life is better for fathers in similar positions today. Dads are actively encouraged to take an interest in their children’s education. They are seen more and more often – sometimes even on their own – at parents’ evenings, enquiring about the progress of their child. Yet, in other ways, things have actually travelled backwards. Visit most schools in Scotland and the bulk of the teaching staff are female. They are also, unlike the Sixties and early Seventies, more likely to have come from a middle–class background. The educational qualifications achieved by individuals like me – from unskilled, working–class parents – have fallen dramatically over the last few years. Teaching as a profession has reflected this change. And there are other changes too. Dad read, beginning and ending his day by reading aloud the Bible both in Gaelic and English. (In the latter case, it was always the King James version, the ideal preparation for any would–be Laurence Olivier or Vivien Leigh.) He read newspapers, both local and national, that were more literate than their counterparts today. He also encouraged us to read, particularly on Sundays, a day of the week when screens were left blank and minds encouraged to switch to other, different tasks. In some ways, therefore, he was in a better position than many of the fathers of today…

About the Author

A teacher of English for 30 years, Donald S Murray is from Ness in Lewis and now a full–time writer living in Shetland. His new book, The Dark Stuff, was published by Bloomsbury on 5 April.