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Peaceful paradise with a bit of chaos;Small schools

Local councils and communities have long battled over small rural schools. Douglas Blane visits one and reports on changing national attitudes

T here can be few hard- pressed teachers in inner city schools who have never dreamt of moving to an idyllic village. There the children are polite, the parents friendly, discipline is easy and there's no drug problem. Within a few weeks accumulated stress would dissolve and worry lines would smooth. Eventually you might even learn to smile again.

The reality is different, of course, especially if you are the only teacher in the school. Small classes, biddable children and obliging parents are all very well. But how does any teacher choreograph a class when the youngest is four and can't read or write, and the oldest is 11 and wants to do experimental physics?

Glentrool is a small village in the sprawling Galloway Forest Park. Headteacher Andrea Kay takes all the primary children. "If the roll rises to 20 I get another teacher," she says. "If it falls below, I lose her again. We have 17 at the moment."

The morning starts with the Lord's Prayer. Then two of the young ones change the date on the calendar and lessons begin. The older group reads on its own. The young ones practise their letters with the special needs auxiliary while Mrs Kay listens to the middle school reading aloud. She moves around, encouraging the children to talk, getting them to think. "Now I want you older children to choose a country and find out 10 facts about it. Then we'll make a database on the computer so you can learn about each other's countries. What will you need?" After a discussion the children head for the extensive reference library.

The classroom is busy and all the children seem to know what they are doing. When they finish one task they get up from their seats and, with the help of brief notes on the whiteboard, find what they need for the next one.

"I like to give them responsibility," says Mrs Kay. "And young ones would normally be up and active a lot of the time anyway, because you can't keep them still for long. They're actually more restricted here because the older ones need a bit of peace to work."

Teaching like this needs the skills of an orchestra conductor or a juggler. Do the spinning plates ever crash to the floor?

"Oh yes," says Mrs Kay. "If it gets out of sequence, it can be bedlam. And you have to be really quick to respond to the right age. If an older child speaks in your ear and you don't recognise the voice and use the wrong language, it annoys them. They don't like being treated like babies. You have to learn to cope with any situation - like the time I brought in packets of sweets to use for making sets in maths, and the younger ones ate all the jelly babies."

After the children go home Mrs Kay takes an hour and a half to plan the next day. She worked it all out at the beginning of the year to meet the curriculum, but has to update it regularly: "I carry a notebook that tells me what I'm doing with each group every hour of the day,and I keep a record of where each child has got to. There's a wide range of abilities as well as ages, and you have to deal with that, but it can be an advantage." She teaches in ability groups varying with subjects, not age. So a Record of Needs child can join a younger group for some subjects, and a clever child in Primary 5 can sometimes slot in with Primary 7.

Mrs Kay has a peer group of headteachers and a curricular group, so they don't all have to sit and work things out in their own little schools.

"We have wonderful accommodation here with a hall and a stage, so if there's a play on we invite other schools," she says. "We organise sports days in summer with the other primaries. And we all went to Loch Ken outdoor centre a few weeks ago."

The special needs auxiliary comes in every morning. There's a learning support teacher two mornings a week and specialists for PE, music and art. A janitor supervises the playground at lunchtime and comes back later because she's the school cleaner too. A qualified chef makes all the meals and snacks for the children, and parents help out a lot in class.

"The children help too," Mrs Kay says. "They set themselves tasks, and get a chart and a sticker every day if they've been successful, and a prize at the end of four weeks. Two of the older girls said they'd like to look after the new Primary 1s, which means they tie their shoelaces, make sure they're organised and help them at lunchtime and PE. One of the kids noticed a younger child was struggling with reading and wanted to help, so came in and read with him just before school every morning."

The children helped devise the school rules at circle time, held every Friday morning. "That's when we sort out problems," says Mrs Kay. "They can bring up any subject they want and decide what they're going to do about it. I'm just an ordinary member of the circle, but like most teachers I can be a bit bossy at times and have to bite my tongue. It's democratic and seems to catch things almost before they happen.

"If a child is a problem in class I'll withdraw them and talk to them. I see most of the parents every day and can get them involved if necessary. If someone is very disruptive I'll sometimes send them to sit in front of the fish tank in the hall and watch the fish. It really calms them down."

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