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Primary co-ops pay dividend for pupils

"I don't have to look for work," Gerry Boyle comments without much sign of job dissatisfaction.

Mr Boyle is head of the 37-pupil Strath of Appin primary, 23 miles from Oban. He also chairs the North Lorn co-operative of five primary schools. And he finds time, just, to act as one of seven area co-ordinators serving six co-ops covering 19 schools and one learning centre in the Oban and Lorn area.

Although Argyll's pioneering links between remote schools require considerable administration and management, Mr Boyle considers they are "the best thing since sliced bread, allowing us to share workload, expertise and resources".

The way in which staff can be shared around schools is a particular strength, especially for small schools where staffing depends on rolls which can fluctuate wildly.

The North Lorn co-op, for example, has a class teacher who is a trained art teacher, taking lessons in her subject in two other schools. A physical education teacher also works in four of the five primaries in the co-op.

The system allows headteachers to specialise and share the management load. Mr Boyle has taken responsibility for finance while his colleagues have other lead roles - Margaret Kilcullen of Ardchattan primary (staff development), Jojo Offord at Barcaldine primary (primary modern languages), and Riona MacInnes in Lochnell primary (5-14 music).

Argyll Online, the authority's IT system, has helped heads meet in "virtual" get-togethers, through video-conferencing, which on at least one occasion prevented Freda MacGregor, the head of Lismore primary, from missing a real meeting when bad weather stopped her getting off the island.

Electronic links are a boon to pupils as well. Mr Boyle recalls a Lismore primary 7 pupil, the only one in the school, who was able to join in maths "group work" through video-conferencing with two pupils in Strath of Appin primary who were at the same stage and level. "It was not without its problems," Mr Boyle says, "but it was better for him than not doing it at all."

Video-conferencing has the advantage in forcing people to be precise in what they are saying, Mr Boyle says, but the great disadvantage in that it is not a sociable medium. "Teachers in this area do value the chance to make direct human contact," he says.

But the North Lorn co-op will be able to humanise at least some contact next term. Some 91 primary 5-7 pupils will come together with eight teachers and catering and auxiliary staff to spend a day a week over seven weeks working on the design of a bridge from Appin to Lismore as part of their technological studies.

"This has major benefits for the pupils," Mr Boyle believes. "One advantage is that when they move on to Oban High, where there are likely to be 200 in first year, they will know at least some of the faces from other schools and not just one or two from their own small class."

Co-operating is not the easiest of approaches especially if, like Mr Boyle, you have three jobs. Financial realities have now conspired to make his job harder still, as the budget for area co-ordinators was cut drastically this year by 85 per cent.

"We are able to keep things ticking over but not really take developments forward," Mr Boyle says as he wonders about the long-term effects if the financial climate remains unchanged. But, for now, the "caring, sharing co-op" has a whole new meaning in Argyll.

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