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Deserving nothing less than a set of straight Bs

David Henderson introduces a four-page focus on the strengths and challenges facing the Highlands. Highland education department receives a glowing report, but not all are in agreement

If Highland education department had been sitting its Highers, it would now be looking at a set of straight Bs. Almost As in some areas, almost Cs in others, but a strong performance overall. Every category is labelled good. None very good, none fair or unsatisfactory. Just good.

One secondary head said he was not surprised at the HMI verdict, delivered earlier this month, and believed colleagues generally shared his view. "It's a great authority to work for and because of its size, heads have a lot of autonomy. What works in one area may not work in another.Schools are well-equipped now and the ethos in the authority is very positive", he said.

In contrast, one primary head disputed the good news and pointed to the recent Mori poll of education staff which revealed that 70 per cent were dissatisfied with the departmental support for dealing with workload. Some 45 per cent felt lines of communication did not work well within education. The findings did not sit easily with the HMI judgment, the head said.

Andy Anderson, the Nationalist education convener in the Independently-run council, has made a strong policy impact since he took over two years ago, when he told The TES Scotland he is opposed to closing schools. He's been true to his word. The previous council ran into strong opposition over plans to close 10 primaries, closing just one and mothballing another.

"It's not a controversial policy at all in the Highlands," said Mr Anderson. "It is perhaps my policy as opposed to the council's policy but it is has the support of the members."

Mr Anderson points to former closure target, Tore primary in Muir of Ord, as an illustration of how schools can recover with the growing population in and around Inverness. "If we want to promote the Highlands as a good place to live, we have to have te facilities for people," he says.

Many small schools will also feature as bases for lifelong learning in the new ICT-linked world, giving them added protection. All primaries will shortly be linked to the University of the Highlands and Islands network and to the Internet thanks to a deal with Cable and Wireless. In some secondaries, pupils will act as mentors for adults.

Like every other authority, keeping schools wind and watertight is a major headache. Repeated HMI school reports comment on the state of the buildings and the council continues to face a repairs' backlog of pound;84 million. "There are daily complaints about buildings," Mr Anderson admits. But, at last, Portree High is being refurbished.

Highland quickly grasped the nettle of the public private partnership and received Scottish Executive backing for building two secondaries and two primaries and has another bid in for pound;60-million worth of capital projects.

The authority is in line with others in developing Executive initiatives such as new community schools and nursery education. Transport to ferry parents and children to nurseries in far-flung areas is "a major problem". The authority is not forced to provide it but parents want it if they are to take advantage of the Executive's planned provision.

Highland's education budget is a familiar tale of cuts, expansion and expectations, although Bruce Robertson, director of education, praises his political masters for injecting an additional pound;4-million into the service above national allocations. This has allowed initiatives to develop in areas such as school sport co-ordinators and Easter study schools. One in four S5 and S6 students last year took advantage of exam preparation.

Standards are high with national qualifications above the Scottish average but overall achievement is the aim - hence the commitment to traditional music in Plockton High (see right) and to Gaelic medium education which is now available to almost 1,000 pupils in 29 schools.

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