'Artificial' to claim that every parish needs a school
Local communities should be able to thrive without a school, and they sometimes had to accept the inevitability of closures.
That was the hard-headed view of Hugh Fraser, Highland's education director who is in charge of one of the largest patches in the country, with 183 primary schools and 200 nursery education providers.
He was speaking at a conference in Inverness last week, organised by Children in Scotland, at which several experts bemoaned schools' failure to instil pride in communities.
Mr Fraser acknowledged that, in the past, pupils who passed their 11-plus would not be expected to return to their communities. "You were being educated out of the croft by a totally urban curriculum," he said
He himself grew up on a croft in Bunchrew, Inverness-shire and went to the same school as his father and grandfather. Kirkton Primary, between Inverness and Beauly, has since closed, and there are no longer any children living in the area.
But new homes had been built in some places where schools had closed, Mr Fraser added, and he insisted longer trips might not be a bad thing. "Twenty minutes on a bus is a good social experience," he said.
It was "artificial" to argue that every community needed a school for learning to take place, although he stressed: "That's not an excuse for rampant school closures."
Jim Johnston, headteacher at 95-pupil Farr High in Sutherland, said it would be a "massive retrograde step" to go back to the mid-20th century when children had to travel to larger towns for an education. But he, too, conceded it would be no bad thing for some small schools to close.
The idyll of a school in every parish and every child content there was given a rude awakening at the same conference, entitled "Sense of Place". Will Coleman, an author and film-maker, claimed that every child thinks their home town is a "dump" - and school is to blame.
Mr Coleman is described as the "place-based learning ambassador" for Carnegie Trust UK, and works with schools in Cornwall to help pupils see their local environment in a different light. As a young teacher in the 1980s, he was told by an education official the priority was to "get these kids writing so that they can get out of this dump".
Recently, he attended a funeral at which he met former pupils who were still living in Nanpean, 20 years after they had been in his class; they apologised for not having moved away.
Children learned from national curricula that equipped them to be upwardly mobile and to strive for personal success. The pursuit of a "standards agenda", Mr Coleman reasoned, encouraged children to "despise their own community".
Mr Coleman did not pull his punches, arguing that formal education was "in cahoots with corporate capitalism". It drove "a selfishly aspirational agenda" when it should be encouraging "global parochialism": collective responsibility for the world and a sense of belonging in local communities.
He was struck that pupils had detailed knowledge of the Manchester United football team, but were not able to name their own street. Similarly, he knew a school where the Cornish coast was studied year after year - but pupils had never been to see it. "If people don't feel belonging, they don't participate," he said.
Another speaker, who campaigns on behalf of crofting, said the UK's education acts of the 1870s, which paved the way for universal schooling, were designed to get people out of their community.
Pam Rodway is project co-ordinator for Crofting Connections, which attempts to strengthen links between Highland schools and crofting communities. Led by the Soil Association and the Scottish Crofting Federation, it has helped pupils learn traditional techniques that had almost fallen out of use.