Isobel Smith, known to all as Billie, was one of the first Guidance teachers in the early 1970s and became Assistant Headteacher of one of Edinburghâ€™s new comprehensives. She has recounted her experiences in a humane and humorous book, Fancy Being Paid for This. The title speaks volumes for Billieâ€™s approach to work. Teaching for her was not a chore. It was a pleasure.
She worked for more than twenty years in a school serving an area of concentrated poverty, one of the first communities to be hit by the drugs culture and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s but in a school also where innovation was the norm. She started from a stark view of reality. â€œPoverty, family breakups, chronic illness or addiction in the home, and parental unemployment were some of the issues that inhibited youngsters from benefiting from their schooling.â€ Billie also however had the advantage of working in a less-rules bound epoch, before the whole culture of risk-assessment became so dominant. Good teachers like Billie Smith were given their head and that was certainly the case in Billieâ€™s school where an innovative headteacher trusted his staff and did not constantly breathe down their necks.
The book is a series of narratives. The school is not identified, names are changed but the power of the tales rings clear. In the first Tracey, a thirteen year old, is trying to resist her knife-wielding boy-friendâ€™s attempts to insist she has sex. In the second Billie recounts taking a group of girls to Scripture Union camp at Carberry Towers: the new experience of youngsters unused to holidays spending time in the country. In the third she becomes aware of a student who is pregnant and achieves the support and help the girl needs. What follows are tales of school discos, sexual abuse, battered wives, field trips to Arran, dysfunctional families and liaison with social work. Every story carries its elements of heart-break and humour. Curiously, although many of these stories spring from the 1970s, they ring true today. Not a huge amount has changed. There was never an idyllic period in education when there no children with problems.
Billie Smith was one of the rocks on which the success of a school is built. Caring, reliable, committed but no-oneâ€™s fool, she dealt with the same range of problems as exist in any school but which were multiplied because of the nature of the catchment area in which she worked. She was, and is, a committed Christian but never proselytised. (The proceeds from her book are being directed to a Christian youth work charity working in deprived urban areas.) She retired in the 1990s, having been awarded an MBE for her services to education. She knew that the classroom teachers in her school were committed to providing the best possible experiences for young people, many of whom (not all, but many) had little commitment to formal learning and little support from home.
She brought a light touch to binding the relationships between staff and learners in a way which assisted both young people and professionals. She helped teachers make sense of children whose behaviour might otherwise have seemed bizarre. She guided, advised and supported her charges from a total interest in their welfare and affection for them as individuals. She epitomised all that was best in the Scottish Guidance system.Â At this time of cut-backs in Scottish schools, Billie Smithâ€™s book is a reminder of the values of our Guidance system. It is unique. So is Billie.
Fancy Being Paid for This is available (Â£8.60, including p&p) from I Smith, 15 Corbiehill Gardens, Edinburgh EH4 5DS. Anyone interested in entering teaching and anyone interested in the reality of schools in urban Scotland should read it. Theyâ€™ll have a wiser view of the world when theyâ€™ve done so.