Rural kids 'are missing the bus'

Neil Munro

A plea for the Scottish Executive to take a much broader view of inclusion was made at last week's Interskola conference on Skye.

It came from Bruce Robertson, director of education in Highland, who pointed to a raft of policies that made a difference to the education and lives of people in rural areas, the focus of the annual international gathering.

Mr Robertson commented: "We need a wider interpretation of inclusion than the narrow view that has dominated discussion in Scotland, which is oriented to special needs and discipline. I have personally found this quite disappointing."

Inclusion in its broadest sense, he said, is marked by the commitment demonstrated by Highland Council in opening secondary schools in remote areas such as Kinlochbervie, Ullapool, Gairloch and Ardnamurchan - "significant social and economic investment which allows local teenagers to remain in their own communities for secondary education".

Mr Robertson added: "The policy of developing pre-school education in as local circumstances as possible has been, in my view, the success story of the late 20th century in Scotland. For Highland, this has been another example of inclusion, allowing our youngest learners to gain pre-school experiences in remote, rural areas which has made a huge difference."

But he warned: "One challenge to this success story and to the policy of inclusion is the difficulty of transport and the Scottish Executive's failure to make pre-school transport a statutory requirement. There are real stories of individual families' exclusion as a consequence."

Other examples of inclusion in Highland, Mr Robertson said, are the development of Gaelic-medium education, making teacher training available locally, involving communities in the operation of new community schools and including young people in decision-making through the Highland Youth Voice initiative.

The Highland director also issued a warning that ICT could act as an agent of exclusion unless all parts of the country were on a level playing field.

The lack of broadband in the Highlands "is actually mitigating against the successful use of the most up-to-date technologies and is in fact becoming an exclusion to our learners".

Mr Robertson said the Executive's national priorities for education, which he described as well-balanced and which "must always be on our radar screen", had to take account of local needs. "In relation to the national priority of inclusion, I hope that all educationists from a rural, as well as an urban, background take a broad approach that recognises the needs of all learners and the communities in which they live."

Another message on inclusion for the Interskola delegates came from Mike Webster, chair of the executive board for the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute. One of the lessons that had been learnt was the need to ensure wide participation in key decisions.

Among future plans, as the initiative moves towards acquiring its full university status, was to recruit more students from outside the Highlands and Islands.

Dr Webster, principal of Perth College, said later that numbers are modest at present but his own college has established a British Council-approved language school for potential UHI students whose English is not good enough to allow them to go straight into degree or higher national courses.

"We are getting quite busy and experiencing accommodation problems already," he said.

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Neil Munro

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