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Sea change

Neil Aiken got the headship he wanted - at a three-pupil school on a storm-lashed island in the middle of the North Sea. Wendy Wallace finds out about life and learning on Foula

Neil Aiken had a career plan. He would become a headteacher by the age of 35, probably in Northamptonshire, where he lived a contented if ordinary life with his wife and two daughters. Then he bought The TES during last year's Christmas holidays and spotted an advertisement for a post on Foula, 20 miles west of the Shetland mainland, and Britain's most remote island.

"It immediately attracted me," he says. "I realised the job was going to be a bit special." Four months later, after a series of interviews, and before his 36th birthday, he and his Volvo were on the ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick.

The islanders laughed when they saw the Volvo. Too low-slung, they said, for the bumpy Foula road that links the airstrip to the school and goes on up to the north end of the island, too smart to be sacrificed to the rust-inducing salt spray. Be careful where you park, his predecessor advised; one car stopped in front of the school gate and was turned over by the wind.

Mr Aiken has shipped out the Volvo and is bringing in a four-wheel drive.

He has lost two stone and learned to fish, make bread and keep a peat stove burning in the school kitchen - "one of my more unusual duties", he says.

"There's a real art to knowing how much air to give it."

Foula school is a sturdy pound;300,000 building put up by the Shetland island council in the mid-1990s to replace the original stone schoolhouse.

The steel girders and braces in the hall are designed to counter the gale-force winds that buffet the place and can blow away vehicles, people and parts of buildings.

There is just one large classroom where the mixed age group class is taught, a small office area, a hall and kitchen. On an island with almost no public facilities, the school is the main focus for the community, and a huge resource. Under Mr Aiken's leadership, it is already immaculately well-organised, bright and welcoming.

The school stands on the east side of the two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half mile island, with a hill behind it and the sea in front.

There are no trees on the island, although it is carpeted in summer with sea pinks, cotton grass and a small yellow flower called tormentil. The sweet air, silence and ever-changing light counter the bleakness of the cliffs rising from the sea.

The lolling oil barrels and pieces of rusted machinery littering the landscape are not an expression of environmental disinterest on the part of the islanders; in winter, storms pick up these items and toss them about.

While the island stays light almost around the clock in midsummer, it is dark through the winter months, with low, claustrophobic mists, driving rain and high winds. All travel to and from the island - by air or by sea - is "weather-dependent".

This term, which starts next week, Foula school will have five pupils; the roll rose from three this summer, when Mr Aiken's wife and two daughters joined him. There is a large grassy play area outside, fenced to keep the Shetland Foula sheep off. A lark nests in the uncut area of grass and the Great Skua seabirds - for which the island is famous in twitcher circles - wheel overhead. It's a far cry from Kettering, where Mr Aiken for three years was deputy head at the 220-pupil Broughton primary. "A new chapter in my life," he says.

Here, he is head, class teacher and special educational needs co-ordinator all rolled into one. The school telephone is a portable, to allow him to answer it wherever he is; its range stretches to the edge of the playground. Working with just three children last term - aged five, eight and 10, was "incredibly intensive". "It's like having a small literacy group all day," he says. "You have to be careful not to wear them out, and to let them work independently." Two of the pupils - Leanne and Daniel Ogg - are brother and sister. The other, five-year-old Robert Smith, is their cousin. Robert's two-year-old brother is looking forward to starting next year, when he will constitute a new nursery class. All are looking forward to the arrival of Jessica, eight, and Charlotte, four, whose labelled work trays await them.

Children on the island are different from their mainland counterparts, Mr Aiken says. "They're calm, focused, and used to organising their time.

They're not unaware of the outside world or naive, but they sometimes lack road awareness."

These children are more used to aeroplanes than buses; Mr Aiken takes his class off the island once a week on the eight-seater LoganAir plane for swimming lessons. After the pool, they walk about in Lerwick, taking in educational visits - to the supermarket, the fire station, the bookshop - before flying back to what Robert Smith's hand-made book calls Our Island Home. It is particularly important that these children, many of whose relatives live off the sea, learn to swim, and the town's swimming pool is a much more hospitable place to learn than the North Sea.

Despite the extraordinary surroundings and tiny size of the school, the job in many ways is the same as it would be anywhere else, says Mr Aiken. "You have to maintain all the expected standards, no matter how remote we are.

We must have all the correct policies, teaching strategies, and resources."

There is a budget to manage, although less cash is devolved than in England. Relationships with parents are key. "They must have been apprehensive about a new teacher coming from England, wondering if I would change things, but they've been very supportive."

Although there is a closeness (born of interdependence) to relationships on the island, Mr Aiken will hold formal parents' evenings, write reports and produce newsletters just as he would have done at home. "I'm bringing all the good practice I've collected over the years and customising it for island schools," he says.

Within the professional rigour, though, is a chance to do things differently. The small number of children makes for flexibility; if the class and their teacher want to walk the 100 yards to the harbour and look at seals and puffins, or pick wild flowers around the loch behind the school, they can catch up with literacy hour later in the day. Recently, a yacht arrived in the harbour; the whole school went down to talk to the people on board, Belgians on their way to Spitzburg.

If Mr Aiken is stranded on the mainland after a meeting and can't get back, school might open at the weekend to make up a lost day. The Shetland island council, which has been "wonderfully supportive", he says, gets him off the island at least once a month to headteacher meetings; he is also part of a five-member small school cluster. The pound;41,000 salary includes an "island allowance" and a "remote island" allowance.

Mr Aiken is assisted by Isobel Holbourn, a crofter and community activist who works part-time as school secretary (and a Met Office reader, care assistant and ranger), and teaches the children knitting one hour a week.

She also imparts fragments of the Shetland dialect, a language with Norse roots that is still spoken by older people on the island. Ms Holbourn came to Foula as the daughter of an earlier teacher, in 1956. Then, the post was combined teachermissionary. Now, although Mr Aiken lives in the Manse (one of only three houses on the island with kerosene-powered central heating), the post is entirely secular. Islander Allyson Gutcher teaches the children art once a week, for two hours, and is a PE instructor. Mr Aiken's wife, Sarah, also a qualified teacher, will provide supply cover for him and be a parent helper.

ICT, which could transform life and education on the island, is frustratingly slow. Linked by microwave to the mainland, internet connections are unwieldy. With only three phone lines on the island, connections are erratic and subject to delay. Children learn word processing, image handling and desktop publishing, and if, as the islanders hope, connections are improved, they will be able to link up with students on the mainland and in other countries. Mr Aiken plans to launch adult classes in ICT this winter at school.

All schools are significant in their communities, but this one represents the continuation of life on Foula. Home to only 29 people, the inhabitants subsist through crofting, working on the ferry boat or fishing, helped along by love of their island and determination to preserve and sustain their way of life. Still, the shadow of St Kilda - the Hebridean island where the declining population of just 36 people was evacuated en masse in 1930 after life became unsustainable on the island - hangs over Foula and there are mutterings from some on the mainland about the level of subsidy necessary to maintain life here. "The school is the hub," says Isobel Holbourn. "It's central geographically and it's a community school." A school log, begun in copperplate in 1879, lists the 30 teachers who have held the post before Mr Aiken, and the children they have taught. His youngest daughter, Charlotte, will be the 287th child to have been educated at primary level here; for secondary schooling pupils must leave the island or board on the mainland.

Mr Aiken, yet to get through a Foula winter, relishes the diversion from the plan he had made for himself. "I needed a change," he says. "This has opened my eyes and made me realise there's a lot more to life. I'm going to see my children grow up."

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