Small school, big shake-up

STANDARD GRADE courses could be removed from the social subjects syllabus when the doors of the secondary in Strontian open next Tuesday, signalling a new era in the Ardnamurchan peninsula west of Fort William.

Single-track, winding roads and sheer distance established the tradition of weekly boarding in Fort William, daily travel across the water to Tobermory on Mull or up the coastal road to Mallaig. This will be phased out with the emergence of the pound;6.5 million Ardnamurchan High School, built through a public private partnership (PPP).

A second tradition of transfer to stages of the curriculum at set ages is also set to be swept away as the school re-examines courses and develops new technology links with other Highland secondaries.

Catherine MacDonald, the Gaelic-speaking headteacher, will begin with seven full-time staff and five part-timers, working with 40 pupils in S1 and S2 and five others between S3 and S5. Within five years the roll is set to rise to around 150 and only then will the full curriculum reforms emerge.

In a fresh start approach, Ms MacDonald favours fast-tracking pupils into Intermediate courses from Christmas in S2 to maintain the pace of learning. "But I have moved away from ditching Standard grade altogether," she says.

"There are some Standard grade courses that are very good and having talked at length to scientists I have been persuaded that Intermediate courses are not designed for that age group. For example, Intermediate 1 biology does not really tie in very well with Intermediate 2 and is not really geared for younger kids."

In history, her own subject, Ms MacDonald believes Intermediate courses will be more attractive and at Lochaber High, where she was assistant head, she dropped Standard grade. "It's what is best for pupils," she argues.

The head will teach some history through Gaelic while the school will join Mallaig High in a video conferencing link to study geography through Gaelic. After much searching, a Gaelic specialist, a native Irish speaker, will be available three days a week.

Open and distance learning will be a key feature because of the small roll. All pupils will have a laptop computer with access to e-mail and the internet. Parents can use the laptops to check on courses and progress, as well as monitor homework plans.

The school's development has not been without difficulties. Strong opposition came mainly from incomers to the area and some who wanted the travelling traditions to continue. But the sports and leisure facilities may help pacify sceptics, the authority says.

Bruce Robertson, Highland's education director, said it was "truly a community school" with a theatre, all-weather pitches, large gym hall, fitness room, a library and adult education base. "We are developing Ardnamurchan High School as a venue for conferences and sporting and cultural activities and the fact that we have got first-class residential accommodation on site should help us," he says.

An accommodation block for 15 pupils sits in the school playground and is a necessary adjunct when pupils in the Kilchoan area are still 36 miles away and will probably continue to board.

But Mr Robertson harbours a continuing worry about telephone links which limit the speed and effectiveness of ICT. "One of the issues that is limiting our potential is the issue of broadband. This has to be addressed for rural communities like Ardnamurchan."

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