In a class of her own

20th July 2007 at 01:00
From a one-pupil primary on a remote and idyllic Scottish island to the bustling heart of London's Soho, teachers are working with pupils from all walks of life. Henry Hepburn's report on the beachside-school on Canna opens a six-part series exploring the variety of schools catering for communities throughout the UK.

never can a modest piece of punctuation have told so much about a school. Canna primary's website explains that the pupil council is made up of "pupil(s), teacher and one or more parents". The brackets are necessary: this year the school has just one pupil.

The tiny sandstone school, built in 1873, could claim to have the most breathtaking setting of any in the UK. Canna's battered cliffs and secluded beaches are watched over by sea eagles, puffins and basking sharks. The 15 islanders hunker into a verdant corner of the Hebridean island, getting around on quad bikes or in 4x4s.

On the tidal island of Sanday commonly referred to as if part of Canna the school overlooks a sheltered bay; low tide reveals a rocky path to the front gate, pockmarked with floundering jellyfish. But the idyll can be brutally shattered the nearby wreckage of a footbridge linking Sanday to Canna is a reminder of a savage storm in 2005.

Nine-year-old Caroline MacKinnon, whose family has been on the island since the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, is in Primary 4, equivalent of Year 4 in England. Johnny, son of the headteacher, Eilidh Soe-Paing, will start school after the summer and there should be another three pupils when Caroline reaches Primary 7 (Scottish pupils don't transfer to secondary school until 12). But for the past year she has been on her own. When her father was a pupil, about 20 squeezed into the school.

There are advantages to being the only pupil. The time spent together means that, while there is a respectful distance between teacher and pupil, they are relaxed in each other's company. Voices are never raised and, when Caroline's attention occasionally wanders, a gentle reminder of the task in hand is enough to set her back on track.

In some ways the school has helped Caroline to mature beyond her years. She is imaginative, witty and firm in her mind about its best interests. As chair of the pupil council the other members are all adults she insisted on putting a bin on the lawn between the school and the shoreline which serves as a playground. She argued successfully, despite opposition, that pupils should be able to dispose of litter without going indoors. She is now building a bin- holder with Geoff Soe-Paing, the head's husband whose roles on the island include clerical assistant at the school. They are making it from the recycled timber of the wrecked footbridge.

There are inevitable drawbacks, however, to being the only pupil in a school. Caroline admits to being a bit lonely since Kathryn, her sister, left for Mallaig high last year. Mrs Soe-Paing's children Johnny, 5, and Orla, 3 spend a lot of time at the school. Caroline is like a big sister to both, but would like to spend more time with children her own age, especially at break.

"I feel a wee bit sad," she says, "because when Johnny and Orla are away, I just sit on the swing because there's nothing to do. It would be nice to have someone who's seven or eight to play with."

Each June, the 15 or so pupils from schools on the four Small Isles Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna spend a week on the mainland playing and learning together. This year Mrs Soe-Paing noticed changes in Caroline as she mixed with the others.

"I was aware of her being more motivated, of the sideways glances she gave to other children to see how they were getting on," she says. "You saw the thinking skills, games and competitive element that she misses by being the only pupil, and you could see her trying harder when she was swimming.

"It was great to see her getting the interaction with other pupils, and nice for us to be less focused on one another. The social interaction is important for her to build up self-esteem and confidence."

Caroline recalls: "The best thing was meeting old friends and playing with them and all that," although "sometimes I'm nervous when I first meet them".

The isolation of Canna poses logistical problems for its teacher. Training courses tend to be in Inverness, which means a four-hour boat trip (25 miles) to Mallaig and three-and-a-half hours' driving. A course on a Thursday means five days away a boat over on Tuesday, returning on Saturday.

Mrs Soe-Paing moved to Canna, where her grandparents once lived, in 2005, although her previous teaching experience was mostly at Fort William, in schools of 100-plus pupils. "I don't feel lonely or isolated at all," she says. "But it's crucial to have a link with my colleagues on the Small Isles. It's great emailing each other and sharing ideas and resources."

She thinks those links could be developed further and hopes to bring over the five pupils from neighbouring Rum, or take Canna's pupils there, a few times a year.

There is increased expectation from Highland Council that the Small Isles schools work closely with mainland primaries in their associated schools group at Arisaig, Inverie, Mallaig and Morar, as well as Mallaig high. But heads on the Small Isles and at Inverie, on the Knoydart peninsula, rarely make monthly meetings.

Joint work is further restricted by the lack of standard broadband on the Small Isles, although the council has plans to improve communication links. Mrs Soe-Paing would value a five-minute weekly webcam chat with other heads.

Caroline's father thought the only good thing about school in his day was the bell at 4pm because the 3Rs had nothing to do with island life. Now the islanders see the school as integral to the community. Symbolically, Mrs Soe Paing lives in a separate, modern house. Until 2001, the teacher lived behind school doors, in rooms now used for storage, offices and a nursery-cum-dining room.

Each adult on the island provides a learning opportunity, whether a visit to a farm in lambing season or a trip to the stately Canna House to explore the local archives with Magdalena Sagarzazu, a native of the Basque country in Spain, who fell in love with Canna 25 years ago and never left.

"It just seems the obvious thing to do in a place like this, where the school is at the heart of the community," says Mrs Soe-Paing. "I think it's almost my duty to make sure that Caroline has a real opportunity to learn about the island's heritage."

Ms Sagarzazu also spends two hours a week as a classroom assistant, and helps Caroline to learn French. Another teacher travels to the island intermittently, giving Mrs Soe-Paing time for the planning and management required even in the smallest schools.

The islanders keep close tabs on visitors: anyone who offers potential educational benefits is asked to spend time with Caroline. That could mean she goes on an archaeological dig, sees how a lighthouse is maintained or attends an in-school meditation session (each year, a group of Buddhist monks visits the island for a silent retreat).

Sometimes the school has to turn help away, as happened when three people the local Catholic priest, a climbing instructor and an expert in the Kodaly approach to music all offered their services on the same day.

Canna's geography also offers learning opportunities. "This year has been wonderful," says Mrs Soe-Paing, "but at times it's intense for both of us by playtime you're both ready for a break. But that's when you have to be creative. That's when the outdoor learning comes into it really well."

She is enthusiastic about the Scottish curriculum document that "legitimises" schools such as Canna taking advantage of their surroundings. "I want to formalise it a bit more. You can see lots of potential for cross-curricular work."

Outdoor learning here can mean anything from playing times-table bingo with chalk on the flagstones, to drawing a field of wildflowers, searching for hermit crabs or learning how flotsam and jetsam on the beach can be recycled.

Caroline is learning in one of the most beautiful places in Scotland, on an island rich in history and wildlife. When she has other children to share it with, it could be the perfect place to go to school.

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