Fancy Being Paid for This

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 Edinburgh’s new comprehensives. She has recounted her experiences in a humane and humorous book, Fancy Being Paid for This. The title speaks volumes for Billie’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. “Poverty, 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.” 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 Billie’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-friend’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-one’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. At this time of cut-backs in Scottish schools, Billie Smith’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 (£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. They’ll have a wiser view of the world when they’ve done so.


Published by

Alex Wood

Alex Wood has had a varied career in education. He started as an English teacher at Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School in 1973 and completed his school-based work as Head Teacher at Wester Hailes Education Centre in 2011. In between he worked in community education, was a Learning Support teacher, headed a behaviour support unit, was Head of a special school and worked in Edinburgh’s Education headquarters. He is a member of the Education Committee of St George’s School. Alex is now an Associate at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration (SCSSA) at Moray House and is Secretary of the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (SELMAS) as well as being a free-lance writer. His experience however ranges well beyond the worlds of schools and education. For seven years in the 1980s he was an elected member of Edinburgh District Council and he retains a keen interest in the political world. He has a long involvement in genealogy and family history, as a researcher, teacher and writer. He is a member of Edinburgh Common Purpose’s Advisory Group and of the committee of Linlithgow Book Festival. Although he has lived in Linlithgow for over 20 years, and in Edinburgh for the previous 18 years, he remains a loyal fan of his home town football club, Brechin City.

2 thoughts on “Fancy Being Paid for This”

  1. As a person who has firsthand experience with the help from billie, i can say that she has done fantastic things for people and my life would have been very different than it is today. Thank you very much Miss Smith for all your help and guidance.

  2. Billie Smith’s memoir of her life as a guidance teacher in an inner city school in a deprived area, ‘Fancy Getting Paid for This’ is a real page turner. At the same time that she wrings sympathy from the reader for her disadvantaged pupils, their energy, trust and hopefulness lift the spirits and we marvel at the strategies and determination employed by their teachers to get them out of trouble. Definitely a ‘feel-good’ read!

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