The Stornoway-based authority moved on Wednesday to consider revolutionising its unique patchwork of secondary education which has four all-through senior comprehensives and seven schools which provide primary and S1S2 education - in essence, "5-14 schools".
The education committee agreed to hold a seminar on proposals to abolish these small S1S2 secondary departments, relocating the pupils to the nearest large secondary. A compromise could be to designate the departments as annexes to the closest S1-S6 school.
Western Isles officials believe they have no option, for local and national reasons - although councillors have not yet decided whether to hold statutory consultations. Rolls are falling and the departments will therefore become more expensive to maintain, they say. Although secondary pupil numbers in the seven schools range from 20 to 61, Daliburgh school in South Uist had only three S2 pupils last session, while Sgoil nan Loch in Lewis has only 10 first-years this session. Secondary education costs in the Western Isles are pound;3.67 million above the national average.
Officials are also concerned at the problems in recruiting newly-qualified teachers to work in those schools because of the requirement that they should have experience of presenting pupils for national exams during their first year in teaching.
Murdo Macleod, the council's director of education, said in the report to councillors this week that "continuation with the status quo is ultimately untenable". The present secondary school structure would become a major weakness for around 40 per cent of Western Isles pupils.
The Executive's new proposals in Ambitious, Excellent Schools also spell problems. The development of a 3-18 curriculum, allowing pupils to sit exams earlier in S1 and S2, the review of Standard grade and the development of skills for work courses would be difficult to progress in S1S2 schools where pupils have to move on elsewhere from S3 upwards. Since 2000, some 150 pupils voted with their feet and bypassed their local S1-S2 school.
The HMI report on the authority, published in January 2003, called on the council to review its rationalisation policy to reduce over-capacity, and in particular to consider whether P1-S2 schools offered best value for money.
The review, carried out by Eleanor Currie, the former director of education in East Renfrewshire, concluded that "to retain the status quo would not create opportunities for (the authority's) pupils comparable with pupils in other authorities in Scotland".
Mrs Currie acknowledged that the small schools "have performed a good service to their communities but now require to be considered in a changing set of circumstances".
She suggested that barriers to learning would exist for Western Isles pupils if there was a split at the end of S2 at a time when learning is supposed to be coherent, continuous and progressive.
Principal teachers in the larger schools report that pupils coming in from the small schools in S3 are less interactive in class than those who started in S1. One reason cited is that the S1S2 schools may have been "over-supportive," possibly inhibiting "mature progress towards adulthood".