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Delivering the very best in a rural area

Argyll and Bute is one of Scotland's most deprived areas but it wants learning to be world class, says Archibald Morton

PUTTING children first means revisiting many of our long accepted methods of working to assure ourselves that, at a time when developing a skilled, educated workforce is a necessary requirement for economic growth, we are offering the best opportunities to young people.

The impetus for proposals placed before the education committee in Argyll and Bute came from a recognition that those involved in work with children, young people and adults were achieving significant success but in common with others in the rest of Scotland were failing to deliver a world-class education system.

Despite savage cuts to the education budget, the classroom experience in Argyll and Bute has been protected at the expense of almost everything else. This protection and the strength of local support for schools gives us a positive base from which to work.

Rural deprivation at its worst is even more restrictive than urban deprivation, with the added difficulties of isolation and lack of access. But despite the second lowest gross domestic product in Scotland, Argyll and Bute does have considerable strengths in the values held by local communities.

How then to build for the future? The challenge is to give all children equal opportunity to succeed. In the pre-five sector we believe that the mixed economy model already developed will give us an excellent base for fulfilling central government pledges. With very small numbers in remote locations co-operation rather than competition is essential.

With a large number of small rural primary schools, teaching children in vertical groups is commonplace. Issues of earlier maturation and access to specialist teaching require to be addressed.

In the secondary sector, the challenge of equality of opportunity is made even more difficult by attempting to accommodate the disparate demands of Higher Still and the oft repeated demands for greater success at S1-S2.

The apparent inflexibility of secondary education is a function of the choice of organisation. Fixed entry and exit dates, Standard grade and Higher examinations available only at one time of the year, rigidity of entry to higher education - these all combine to ensure that the senior school timetable dominates.

It does not need to be so but the education community requires to waken up to a need to provide a diversity of choice and options which suit the individual rather than the "industrial process" that characterises secondary schools.

How therefore can we break the mould to give parity, especially to younger secondary age pupils? One way would be to operate the younger age-groups in secondary schools at times largely different from older pupils. The greater the variation the greater the flexibility.

Suddenly the straitjacket of the secondarytimetable can be loosened and the staffing requirements of the upper school timetable made less onerous and less all pervasive on the rest of the school. Reducing pupil movement to a minimum in the lower school increases learning opportunities and has the added benefit of reducing opportunities for aberrant behaviour outwith the classroom.

Providing base classrooms would reinforce our main claim that children come first. Purposeful joined-up learning in a secure setting must be one of the baseline requirements of a world-class system. This demands far greater teacher co-operation than is currently possible. Team working requires preparation; it also offers prospects of completing some of the visionary ideas of 5-14. Importantly, it allows us to maximise the use of new technology to support learning. For some pupils progress towards Standard grade can proceed earlier thereby aiding more able pupils within a national framework.

For the most part learning is enjoyable; it is also hard work. There is considerable value in dividing the academic year into terms that can sustain this effort while offering breaks that provide an opportunity for meaningful alternative activities.

The long summer holiday period is not conductive to the continuity of the learning process that characterises the academic term and it further exacerbates the lack of opportunity open to children from poorer families. A period of four weeks would allow full use of the longer daylight hours found in summer by pupils and staff.

By undertaking a co-ordinated approach to supported study, and the options offered by Sport Scotland and New Opportunity-funded developments in music and the arts, young people can gain from the wraparound approach that characterises current thinking.

Lifelong learning builds on the network of staff and facilities across Argyll and Bute together with partnerships through the new Argyll College, the University of the Highlands and Islands project and links with the voluntary sector and other agencies and colleges located outwith the area.

Members of the Argyll and Bute committee agreed to welcome these proposals as topics for further discussion. A wide ranging consultation has started this month involving schools and the wider education service. Staff, pupils, parents and the local communities will have an opportunity to express their views on the delivery of the educational service over the coming months.

A further period of debate within the council and a programme of implementation means that such changes are unlikely to be in place before August next year. The consultation exercise reflects our desire to undertake a best value review of provision and by providing a focus for the debate it ensures we can be satisfied that we have challenged ourselves and our delivery of the service.

Archibald Morton is director of education for Argyll and Bute.

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