Friction over S3 courses

Neil Munro reports from the troubled Western Isles on the conflict between a director and his flagship school

There is virtually only one issue on which all parties agree. The worst bone of contention is the curricular choice offered to pupils from third year on. This is to be a major focus of the working group set up to improve relations which, under the chairmanship of Brian Stewart, the council's chief executive, got down to business last Friday.

Stornoway is educationally well endowed for a population of 8,000. The town is served by the six-year Nicolson Institute, Lews Castle College and Lews Castle School, which offers purely vocational courses from S3-S5. Unfortunately for Neil Galbraith, and for public perception of even-handedness, the director's wife is the recently appointed assistant head of Lews Castle School.

The education department argues that pupils do not receive objective advice about subject choices at the end of second year and says staff discourage pupils from going to the vocational school. Nicolson teachers refute the charge, pointing out that they have no interest in denying pupils to the 140-pupil Lews Castle School. Other schools - the Western Isles has a unique patchwork of eight two-year secondaries - are said to be under pressure to send pupils to the smaller school against the wishes of parents.

In a typical illustration of the not-so-close encounters between the two sides, the Nicolson claims Mr Galbraith has prevented it running vocational courses whereas the director insists he simply wants to avoid duplication. The education department says the Nicolson has run just one GSVQ, in hospitality, without a single success. The Nicolson staff say pupils are not attracted by these courses.

There seems little doubt that the chief executive wants Lews Castle School closed. When its future was in the balance two years ago, Mr Stewart underlined the importance attached by the Accounts Commission to eliminating expensive schools. Lews Castle cost Pounds 4,733 per pupil in 1996-97, against the Nicolson's Pounds 3,283.

Councillors decided, however, to stick with the status quo.

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