Off the beaten track

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
In our second feature on the difficulties rural areas face in attracting teachers, Douglas Blane reports on two probationers who opted for a different lifestyle

Squeezed between the blue sea and the black Cuillin, the ribbon of road rises higher and higher, making the directions to Elgol Primary on Skye seem less amusing with every hard-won mile.

"Take the single-track road south and drive as far as you can," the headteacher, Pat Anderson, had said. "Stop before you fall into the sea."

The road eventually snakes steeply down among scattered white crofts to the little school on the shingled beach. The sea offers no danger today, though it is an occasionally violent presence. "January's terrible storms washed away our garden wall," says Mrs Anderson.

"Like many Skye schools, we are right on the shore because the road wasn't good enough in the 19th century when they were built. So materials were brought in by sea."

Narrow, winding, but well-surfaced, today's road is much improved but still came as a shock to Jim Crawford from Gourock, whose probationer year at Elgol Primary ends in July.

"When I was applying for a job, I ticked the preference waiver box that said they would pay me pound;4,000 if I would go anywhere in Scotland. To tell you the truth, I didn't fully understand what it meant," he says.

"The letter said Elgol, Broadford. I found Broadford on the map, then saw this horrible, long, faint track. I thought, 'I'm a city boy. What have I done?' " A preliminary visit showed Mr Crawford that the place was not without charm. "I couldn't believe how picturesque it was. I arrived at lunchtime and two girls were practising the clarsach and one was playing the fiddle.

I thought 'This is a lovely wee school.' " But doubts remained. "It was going to be just Pat and I. What if we didn't get on? And I had never taught a composite class.

"My girlfriend was 212 miles away. The nearest supermarket was Inverness.

And I had never lived by myself before."

But Mr Crawford was made of sterner stuff. "I decided: 'It is just for a year. I can do this'."

Directly through his classroom window, the sun is sinking towards Soay, Canna and Rum, across the Cuillin Sound, while off to the north Sgurr Alasdair, one of the most fearsome Munros in Scotland, draws the appalled eye of the hill-walker.

"I haven't climbed any of the mountains yet," says Mr Crawford, "but I will before I leave. I've been really busy. Considering we have only 15 pupils, and two teachers, it is an amazingly busy wee school.

"There's always something happening. We have visiting specialists. We take the kids away on trips. This morning we had two musicians from the Feis an Eilean (Skye's annual folk festival) teaching the kids to play the penny whistle."

For Mrs Anderson, who was appointed in 1990 - and produced the Christmas play then with just five children - such activities go to the heart of what schools in remote locations owe to their pupils.

"Remoteness is seen as a barrier, but we are preparing every one of our children, socially and educationally, for a future outwith this community.

So we do as many things with them as we possibly can," she says. "I don't want any child to feel at a disadvantage, anywhere in the world, because they come from Elgol. I want them to be proud of it."

In practical terms, this means creating and responding to opportunities.

The green flag flying in the playground testifies to Elgol Primary's status as Highland's first Eco School; the classroom's colourful new flooring is the children's first prize in a UK-wide design competition.

"That attitude has rubbed off on me," says Mr Crawford. "I get stuff through the door now - about music, public speaking, sports festivals - and I think 'Let's go for it'. Tomorrow the kids are making a movie with the arts centre in Portree.

"These are the things you remember from school, the trips, the football tournament, the time you won the design competition. You don't remember your reading scheme."

The biggest professional challenge Mr Crawford faced at Elgol Primary, particularly in the first few weeks, he says, was teaching a composite P5 to P7 class.

"It's a big range. Each class has its own reading scheme, but you have to pitch whole-class lessons - topics, mental maths, PE - so you don't lose the young ones or bore the older ones. It takes a fair bit of planning.

"The first few weeks were very intense. The kids were great, though; really interested. They're more mature than I've been used to; level-headed, keen to learn."

At the end of the session, Mr Crawford is returning to the central belt in search of a permanent post. He is looking forward to seeing more of his girlfriend and having greater options for evening activities, but he will miss the community spirit on Skye.

"Pat and the other people here have been really good to me. I'll miss the fact that you can walk along the road and somebody will say: 'Oh, that's Jim, the teacher.' You walk down the street in Gourock and nobody knows who you are," he says.

"I feel sorry for my Jordanhill colleagues who applied for schools near home and are now struggling with huge classes. I email them pictures of me cutting peat for my fire or helping the postman rescue a cow that had rolled on to its back."

Probationers need more support than experienced teachers at first, says Ms Anderson, but their enthusiasm and new ideas are very rewarding. So too is watching a young professional gaining steadily in confidence and skills.

"It is satisfying to support a probationer, to give them advice, help them on their way, watch them get a handle on activities in the classroom. It's very worthwhile," she says.

"You want to make sure they look back on their probationer year and think 'What a nice job. Aren't children great?' " Among the ancient oakwoods around Loch Sunart, warblers, pipits, wrens and redstarts sing in the branches, red and roe deer graze in the undergrowth, otters play in the water, foxes and pine-martens hunt on the ground and rare butterflies flit silently through the shady glades.

Mild weather, clean water and unpolluted air make this a paradise for every form of life but one. Ardnamurchan, the most westerly peninsula on the British mainland, is a wonderful area to visit but a hard place to earn a living. It is why the probationer at the new high school in Strontian is leaving.

"My partner came with me from Aberdeen at the start of the year," says Lindsay Jamieson. "He is a graduate too, but he hasn't been able to find work here, so we're going to Edinburgh."

This is a disappointment to the headteacher, Catherine MacDonald, who, despite managing a lovely new school, is having trouble recruiting staff in some subjects. Business studies is one of them, so Ms Jamieson found herself running the department at Ardnamurchan High in her probationer year.

"That was good experience, but quite a challenge. I spoke to teachers in Aberdeen before I came and got a lot of resources. I joined the Business Education Network and the school helped me to contact other business studies teachers in the area.

"When I came to have a look, I had never seen such a modern school. It was lovely. The staff were really nice to me. I am not expecting to get another school as good as this."

More than that, she says, "The kids have a different attitude to what I'm used to. They appreciate the school, for one thing. Before it opened in 2002 they had to travel a lot further to go to school and stay away from home.

"Then, they are offered so much in a small school. They are more enthusiastic than I have experienced before. We have almost no discipline problems."

The opening of Ardnamurchan High was the culmination of a 15-year community campaign. It has been a boon to the west coast communities, which also benefit directly from the new sports fields, learning centre, library, and 200-seater hall.

"For the first 18 months I was here, I lived in the school hostel," says the school librarian, Jane Johnstone. "I came to every performance in the evenings. It was better than living in a big city, because you had these famous artists performing on your doorstep."

Ms Jamieson was "really lucky" to find a house to rent 14 miles from Strontian, after staying in the school hostel for a month. The almost total absence of affordable housing is a huge barrier to filling teaching vacancies, says Ms MacDonald.

"My problem is not so much recruiting staff but retaining them, because they can't find permanent accommodation," she explains. "This is a very popular area to retire to and young teachers can't compete with someone selling up from the central belt or the south."

Ms Jamieson will not miss the inconvenience of a 100-mile round trip to a supermarket, when she leaves. She will miss the beauty of the countryside and the people she has met.

"I'm sad at having to leave the school and the pupils after just one year," she says. "I have learnt a lot here. Last week, for instance I was delivering professional development to experienced teachers, which was valuable but nerve-racking.

"Teaching is not something I always wanted to do. Until the third year of my degree, I thought I wanted to be an accountant. I've really enjoyed this year. I can now see myself quite happily being a teacher for the rest of my life."

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