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Some Personal Reminiscences by Barry Williamson

August 2007

I met Alexander MacLennan in his role as the Director of the Huddersfield College of Education (Technical). He served in that role between 1947 to 1974; I was student at the College in the early 1960's and a tutor from 1968. Mac, as he was known, taught me much and most of it was well outside what was called the formal curriculum. Not least, he extended my travels to West Germany in its period of post-war recovery and he began for me a long affair with India to which I made my 7th visit in 2005.


I describe Mac as being 'in his role', because it was aOlder_Mac.jpglmost impossible to know him at a more personal level, to get behind the role. He was, or so it appeared, completely absorbed in the role. When I knew him, he lived on the Holly Bank Road campus, in a detached house located directly between the College buildings and the 7-storey hostel. Although dozens of students' study-bedroom windows overlooked the house and his bedroom window, little was known of events within this domestic fastness. He kept the two worlds, his family role and his work role, quite separate.

I knew something of Mac in the years between 1962 and 1974. In 1962, I enrolled as a full-time student on the pre-service Certificate programme, graduating in 1963. I returned to Huddersfield in 1968 as a Senior Lecturer, having taught in the further education sector in Hull, Slough and High Wycombe. This is my account of interactions with Mac, as a student and as a tutor, in Huddersfield, Cologne (Köln) and Bhopal.

As a Student

I worked in local government on leaving school and spent my National Service years in the RAF in Hong Kong, before graduating from London University with a double first in Physics and Chemistry. Any PGCE programme seemed an easy option after those years of work and study, and I also looked forward to the kind of career in teaching that would give me time for other interests. Both these assumptions proved correct, but what I did not anticipate was the challenge and the influence of Mac.

It is not possible to describe here the curriculum that was in operation at that time. After the structure and discipline of a science degree, it seemed unstructured and to some extent ad hoc. Students were grouped by subject: mine was 'science', with John Flynn as the science tutor. But within that category, there was every sort of science at several levels of qualification. Beyond that, a bewildering array of tutors came and went, offering a range of subjects. Several tutors seemed to date from Mac's wartime career in RAF training. I remember Bill Green lecturing on the History of the World and someone set us an essay under the heading 'English', for which I wrote an essay: 'A Mountain Rescue in Skye', but little else of the course remains in my memory.

What made the curriculum work for me was the system of 'tutorial groups' formed by a dozen inter-disciplinary students, who met with a tutor on a regular basis. Mac led the group of which I was fortunate enough to be a member. We met in the main hall with no overall agenda. In later years, we would perhaps call it a 'T Group'. It was wide ranging, it was personal, it was confrontational and it was led by a man who wanted you to say what he knew you were thinking. Mac could not tolerate pretence.

This tutorial group gave me the opportunity and the experiences for what would come to be called 'personal growth'. I came to see that there was little of substance in the subject of 'Education', and the little there was required little effort at understanding. What mattered was the technical subject, an empathy with the students in further education, a personal philosophy and a confidence in oneself. Mac called this 'special method', although this term came to be misunderstood and misused in later years.

College of Education life in those happy days was full and well resourced. All the students were full-time and most were residential. The hostel on the Holly Bank road site was newly opened and the five hostels in Edgerton were still in use: Victorian mill-owners' houses with attics and basements, bedrooms and kitchens, staircases and sitting rooms. Each house developed its own character and rivalries grew: midnight raids were not unknown. There was a full social life under Mac's direction. Formal meals had tablecloths, wine and waitress service. The main hall was used for revues and plays. Guest speakers of some standing addressed us. The Student Union was fully formed and very active.

Mac was very aware that many of the 300 full-time students had no previous experience of full-time education; they had come up the hard way, through evening classes and day-release. I guess he never forgot his own origins. His aim was to give us all an experience of the best of university life (although not the academic life), in a version suitable for adults.

Mac and his general factotum, Jim Pratt, organised and came on a 2-week study tour of West German technical education, based on Cologne. The student group stayed in a youth hostel, Mac and Jim had a hotel somewhere. Visits were made to colleges and apprentice training workshops and we had free time to explore Cologne, a Rhine cruise and a weekend in the nearby Eiffel Mountains.

Mac had little time for the pompousness and arrogance of the many German speakers who appeared before us, extolling the virtues of their industry and their training. One of our number, a student who knew more Welsh than German, was our interpreter and he was mercifully brief in his version of speeches. Mac used him for interjections. On one occasion, at an open-cast brown coal site with the world's largest extraction machinery, after half an hour of facts and figures, Mac suggested that they stick the brown coal up their arses. Sadly, this was not translated.

I acted as a tutor to one of Mac's sons who was studying Physics at 'A' level, with the intention of taking up medicine. But I never met the son! Mac brought and took work for my comment and marking. So separate was his home life, a few yards away!

A final measure of the man, for me as a student, came at the very end of the course. A group of us had erected some masts on the flat roof of the 7-storey-high hostel building in the early hours of the morning and hung from them a number of undergarments. I screwed down the access hatch from above and used my climbing rope to abseil over the edge of the roof and into a bedroom window. The next day, Mac asked me if I would like to free the hatch by climbing back onto the roof which had an overhanging edge, knowing that it was beyond my ability. Touché.

As a Tutor

After teaching physics in Hull, Slough and High Wycombe (3 promotions in 5 years – those were the days!), I applied for a Senior Lectureship in Huddersfield. After a night in a Huddersfield bed and breakfast, I turned up at the college in my Montague Burton suit to join 7 or 8 other hopefuls, nervously eyeing each other in the anteroom to the interview. Mac popped his head round the door, took in the situation and said, in effect: 'Don't worry: there's a job for all of you'. And there was!

Mac had begun in-service courses: a 'sandwich' structure based in Huddersfield and a day-release structure based at a number of centres, most notably in Durham. Always in control of his own finances, the governors, the local authority, the awarding university (Leeds) and much else besides, Mac had decided to recruit a new staff to work with the in-service students: a younger staff with recent experience of technical education.

That schism between the two resulting different kinds of staff (old hands vs new, pre-service vs in-service, fixed student group vs matching student needs, Huddersfield-based vs peripatetic, didactic vs flexible) was uneasy from the beginning and remained built into the fabric of the College right up to the time of the bulldozers!

My insight into Mac the man, his life and his personal philosophy, came when he asked Peter Lazenby and myself to work for a month, in the summer of 1972, on a staff training programme at the Technical Teachers' Training Institute (TTTI) in Bhopal, the capital of India's Madhya Pradesh (the 'Central Province' of old). He came for the last 2 weeks, along with Jim Pratt.

I remember a meeting in the bar in Huddersfield with a man from the British Council, who was to brief us before the visit. He was extolling the virtues of Bhopal, the Nawab's Palace, the Lake, the culture, the language, etc. Mac looked him in the eye. 'I know what you do' he said, 'you spend your evenings in your hotel room, wanking'. Deflation of pompous character and a reaction that demonstrated Mac's unerring accuracy!

Peter Lazenby and I had worked out a full programme of work for the TTTI staff, to cover the 4 weeks of the staff development course. As soon as Mac turned up after 2 weeks, it was put on permanent hold and, instead, Mac held their attention all day. He had a quiet voice, needing regular medication with a spray, and his hand-written OHP work was indecipherable (pre-prepared rolls sometimes came out sideways), but he could hold any audience. In Huddersfield, I saw him take over a hall full of people, from the back row, leaving an unimpressive presenter stranded on the stage.

In the evenings and into the early hours in our Bhopal Guest House, fortified by Highland whisky, Mac talked of his early life and the development of his political ideas. He was a marxist (with a small m) at heart, although not a member of any organised group. He saw how young people were used and exploited by the capitalist system; he saw that they had no choice but to fit into that system, as best they could, as he had done. He had come from a Scottish family with roots in the world of highland crofts, washing in a cold mountain stream. After working his way via Glasgow's engineering workshops to a science degree, he attained success as a civilian in RAF Training Command during World War II, rising to the rank of Wing Commander (acting, unpaid).

His heart and his mind were with the young people in the colleges and training centres; he saw the rest of us as parasites on their ambitions. We controlled the middle ground between young people's hopes and dreams, and the harsh realities of industrial and commercial life in Britain at that time. He despised the plumber whose ambition was to be a lecturer and go to work in a suit, in a motor car! But these were his own staff and the ambitions of his own students. This was the core of his dilemma. He had no choice but to work through people for whom he had little respect (his staff and the staff in colleges), in order to influence and improve the life and prospects of young people starting out on their careers. This was another dimension to his 'special method'.

If he detected that you shared anything of his outlook, his vision, he could be very kind, considerate, caring and supportive with resources and encouragement. If he thought you were just another 'plumber in a suit', he could be scathing in his judgement. The uneasiness of this position led him constantly to try new approaches to the curriculum in the College. He was never satisfied, ever leaving the door open to change and innovation which was rarely achieved. Part way through a term, hand-written notes on small pieces of paper would be circulated: this was the new approach, the new idea.

To have lived through the sixties and early seventies with Mac as a tutor and mentor was an experience which changed my life, as it must have done for many others who were open to new ideas. He was a man of his time who built a College with an international reputation, starting with a few rooms at the Huddersfield Technical College and an eleven-acre green field site off the Halifax Road. Sadly many, and probably most, of the staff he was forced to employ from the pool of available people were not worthy of the opportunity that he gave and which they failed to grasp.

I was in India, in Madras, for the last year of the MacLennan era. He retired when the College was merged into the Huddersfield Polytechnic in 1974. It was immediately reformed, with Departments, each with a Head; Sections, each with a Head; committees, responsibilities, hierarchy: all the evils of fledgling and initially inept bureaucracy. Instead of Mac at the helm, his deputy, Frank Barr, took up a role within the Polytechnic, with an apparently undefined responsibility for what came to be called 'Holly Bank'. An independent college with a national and international reputation became no more than a street name. We became isolated, underestimated and misunderstood.

The misunderstanding of the springs of Mac's ideas, and the need to reproduce a polytechnic-type structure (based on division of labour and a hierarchy of control), led at once to an ossification of control and the separation of staff and students into idea-tight boxes: in-service/pre-service, method/education, special method/general method, certificate/degree. 'Education technology' was separated out and given its own being. 'Computing' was left on a limb and struggled to survive.

If Mac had a failing, it was that he left no-one of his stature to take his place. He left no-one who understood, as he did, how the system worked at all its levels. And how to work that system to produce innovation at home and abroad.

I still miss Mac!

Barry Williamson