Wester Hailes at 50: 'Don't let anyone tell you that the school you went to wasn't good enough': One man's inspiring rules for life
Former Wester Hailes Education Centre pupil Scott Douglas is now a successful businessman and founding partner of a city-based PR agency after a long career as a journalist. In 2018 he gave the prizegiving speech to pupils at his old school, the WHEC. Here, below, is the text of his speech in full:
Hello everybody – and thanks for having me here and letting me join you in this celebration today.
Wester Hailes Education Centre is the place that made me who I am. And who I am is built on telling stories.
So today, I’d like to tell you a short-ish story, about a new community that was carved out of the countryside to give thousands of people a bright new chapter in their lives.
That community was Wester Hailes – and when it was conceived and built on rolling farmland that used to be here, it was done with a large dose of cheerful optimism.
It was originally meant to be a commuter heaven – a place on the outskirts of the city where people would come home in their nice, shiny cars after driving to and from their well-paid jobs.
The modern flats were big and roomy and ideal for the happy families the planners had imagined living in them.
But there was a problem. Pretty much nothing about this story worked out it was meant to for the Wester Hailes I knew in the 1980s.
The tower blocks were badly built and some of them were so damp they frequently had fungus growing in them.
While there were plenty of families, many of them were not the two-parent families the planners had imagined. Instead, there were large numbers of single-parent families at a time when that was still considered a social ill.
The 1980s was a period of massive social upheaval and large numbers of people here had no jobs and survived on fairly meagre benefits.
And things were about to take another turn for the worst. Because the 80s also brought a heroin problem to Wester Hailes and a deadly new disease, called AIDS, which was linked to the way drug users shared their needles.
In just a few short years that hopeful story of a new commuter suburb had turned into a nightmare.
Suddenly this was seen as a community of fractured families blighted by drug abuse, disease, squalid housing and benefit dependency.
The optimistic story had been replaced by a much darker narrative which convinced many people that Wester Hailes was:
* A dumping ground for the dregs of society
* A warning about what happened to those who took the wrong turnings in life
* Populated by no-hopers, benefit scroungers, crooks and junkies
* Not a safe place that you would choose to visit
I’m telling you this because while that might have been the prevailing story about Wester Hailes it was definitely NOT the story me and my friends were living.
In fact, this was something of a eureka moment for me when I was about your age.
I realised that Wester Hailes had an image problem and that other people - who didn’t live here and who didn’t know the people here - were driving the narrative. They were creating a story about Wester Hailes that I didn’t recognise.
It was the first time I understood exactly how powerful story telling could be and that establishing and controlling a narrative could do a lot of good – but could also cause a great deal of harm.
Back then I was a teenager a lot like most of you. All of my friends were here at this school and all of them lived in Wester Hailes or Calder.
We loved music and films, sports and hanging out together. If we weren’t outside having fun, then we’d be watching TV or movies on video, or listening to the charts on the radio.
We laughed a lot and dreamed of dating the girl or boy we fancied. We may been at the poorer end of 1980s society, but we were just regular teenagers. Our story … our day-to-day reality … was a very long way from the perception of what life in Wester Hailes was like.
We didn’t take heroin. We weren’t benefit spongers, or criminals or no hopers. Yet that was the perception.
I think your generation really understands the power of perception, not least because of time spent on platforms like Snapchat and Instagram where image and perception is everything.
And you’re living through the ‘fake news’ era. So you know only too well that something doesn’t have to be true, it just has to be a story that people will latch on to and decide to believe
But back then, my horizons were expanding at a slower pace, as I started meeting people from outside of Wester Hailes. I was pretty shocked by what they thought of the place – and more importantly what they thought of its people.
I’d say that expectations were low. But that’s being too generous.
In fact, people often expected the worst of me and my friends, simply because of where we came from.
Happily, so much has changed for the better since then. Single parent families aren’t stigmatised in the same way and we’re taking big strides in ridding society of sexism, racism and other discrimination.
Progress is an amazing thing. Our sports stars are bigger, stronger and faster. Our medicine and science is more advanced and more powerful. Our energy use is more efficient.
So don’t believe anyone who tells you that, despite all this progress, education techniques and the qualities of our young people are somehow going backwards.
They’re not. You can be proud that your generation is likely to be the best educated and best-equipped ever.
And through all this progress Wester Hailes has also changed beyond all recognition from the place where I grew up - and for the better.
The image problem which blighted this area in the 80s and 90s was so bad that a whiff of that story is still with us even today, hanging about like a bad smell.
I know there can still be raised eyebrows or sharp intakes of breath when people hear the name Wester Hailes. Expectations can still be disappointingly low.
It turns out that some perceptions are hard to kill.
So where does that leave you, as you strike out on the most exciting period of your lives?
I could stand here and try to give you all sorts of advice. Work hard. Dream big. Do good. Make a difference. Pay attention in class, brush your teeth, eat your greens and be nice to old ladies.
But you’ve got teachers, relatives, role models and friends who can help you to be the best and most successful version of you.
My advice is actually pretty simple: think of your future as a story – as yet unwritten, but with YOU firmly in charge of telling it.
When you have difficult choices to make or are unsure what to do it will give you a focus to think about how you would like your story to sound.
For example, do you want to be known as the person who blew their Nat 5s or their Highers because you just had to watch binge watch another series of that show on Netflix.
Everything comes down to the choices you make. And you’re likely to make better and more positive choices if you’re thinking about how your own story should be told.
Don’t let someone else shape your story, as happened with Wester Hailes in the 1980s.
Even more importantly don’t let an outdated, inaccurate and unfair perception of Wester Hailes define you our limit your ambition.
But don’t just take my word for it. I hope you’ll be inspired by some other former WHEC pupils who grew up here around the same time as me.
Their life stories are colourful, happy and positive – and they’ve given me messages to share with you today .
Like LYNDA A professional photographer and artist in the north east of Scotland.
She said: "Mr Bonnor was a great teacher he made me believe in myself, which i think is the key.
It's not all about how perfect things are in life, as most things are subjective.
It's about believing in yourself! If you think you can you will!"
Or how about SHAUN One of the best-known, and most respected, journalists in Scotland.
He said: "Looking back, growing up in the Calders gave me a perspective on life, social values and authenticity that formed the spine of my own character.
"If it wasn’t for WHEC, I doubt teachers would have indulged my passion for writing and questioning. There would have been no two days a week block release in fifth year to do media studies at Stevenson College.
"Ultimately that got me in, got me qualified, and into jobs that have allowed me to cover wars, elections, protests and the best of life.
Plus, some lifetime friendships that endure even today."
It’s a similar story from HELEN, a successful Community Education Worker.
She said: "I've no doubt that my background coming from WHEC was a huge factor in getting accepted into Edinburgh Uni at the age of 30 to do Community Education.
"It helped shape my values around inclusion and equality of opportunity so that everyone gets the same chances in life, that has given me a career in the charity sector for more than 25 years.
"It’s also given me a determination about changing people's perceptions.
"Something I’ve heard a lot is, 'You don't sound like you come from WH!' - I've challenged that statement a few times over the years.
After all, what does someone from WH sound like?!
"The main thing is be proud - and use your background as a springboard to go and do whatever you want to do."
And there’s more – like IAIN, a talented and successful Graphic designer at HH Global.
He said: "I arrived at WHEC in 1987 late into second year.
"I was a quiet, reserved teenager with no clear idea of what I wanted to do when I left school.
"By the time I finished 6th year in 1991, not only had I decided on my career path as a graphic designer, but it also helped me develop the skills and confidence that would later see me take the lead role in a 5-star Fringe performance."
Or how about about BEVERLEY who left WHEC for a travel career as an Airline Flight Attendant. She said:
"I went to WHEC and I’m so proud that I did and where I come from.
"I’ve had a wonderful life travelling the world as an air hostess and I’ve spent the last four years living in Spain.
"It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going and what you do that matters.
"If you want to do something, you can."
I’ve kept two of my personal favourites til last – including PAUL, a successful Documentary film maker.
He shared how: "Before I came to WHEC I went on a primary school trip to London. Until then the only place I’d ever been to was Kinghorn in Fife on holiday with my family.
"At the age of 12, I decided my goal was to live somewhere like London when I grew up.
"Subjects that I hadn’t shown much interest in before, like literature, art, computers and foreign languages, were now what I saw as my ticket to these new places.
"At WHEC there were teachers who supported my ambition. They kept the curiosity in me alive, stoked it like a furnace.
"To this day I still have that curiosity, which is a big part of why I ended up as a documentary filmmaker in New York City.
"My key takeaway from WHEC was this: go into every new situation with the assumption that you have something new to learn."
And finally, a very powerful message from MARK who travelled the world as a Royal Navy Engineering Technician – and is now part of the maintenance team on the Royal Yacht Britannia.
I have a few things to say to the students at WHEC now.
1. Don't let anyone tell you that the school you went to wasn't good enough. It's up to you what you take out of it.
2. Never miss an opportunity to try something new be it food, a sport or even just a different route to school as small changes can help you gain experience in all sorts of ways.
3 - If you do go on in life to travel or move away don't forget your friends from school. They will be the ones to remind you of the funny stuff you thought was embarrassing when you were younger and you can all have a laugh together about it realising that school actually was some of the best times of your life.
I hope that your remaining time here at WHEC are some of the very best days of your lives – and I want to wish every one of you the best of luck with YOUR unfolding story.