A school of your own?

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Pitching up in a remote glen and pitching a tent, holidaymakers are tempted to romanticise about rural life. How about leaving behind once and for all the problems of urban schools and finding a peaceful posting away from it all?

Would it be an idyll or an illusion? Two articles this week paint contrasting pictures. On page 18, Eleanor Caldwell describes the life of a peripatetic young teacher of modern languages in the Western Isles who finds professional satisfaction and plenty of opportunities to go sea surfing in her kayak.

But in the Platform article opposite, there is a harsher story. Remote island life can create and perpetuate problems, and hurt is done to pupils, teachers and the community. The suicide tale from Wyre belongs to the last generation. It even has resonances of George Mackay Brown's timeless Orcadian sagas. But although nowadays things might not reach the pass they did in wartime Wyre, problems of isolation persist. Just as rural poverty is often ignored because it is less evident than urban deprivation, so the potential drawbacks of small schools can be forgotten in the midst of more obvious concerns about discipline and drugs in large towns and cities.

Small schools are no longer left to their own devices. They form clusters, they may be linked electronically, and they get visiting help (as long as the money doesn't run out). But rural communities are often less vibrant than before. Community facilities apart from the school have disappeared. The able-bodied commute to work, houses lie empty until the summer holidaymakers rent them. Public transport is drastically reduced, bringing problems, for example, to nursery-age children (page one).

Teachers in small schools have to be self-reliant and turn their hand to all manner of challenges. They may escape some of the worst social problems but they will be subject to the same regime of target-setting, monitoring and appraisal as colleagues elsewhere, and they may have sole full-time charge of a clutch of youngsters all the way from five to 12. They deserve the compensations for which holidaymakers envy them, although short days and winter weather may make these rarer than seems possible in high summer.

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