The best way forward for the Western Isles

26th September 1997 at 01:00
The Western Isles struggle to rid themselves of a reputation for incompetent government. The latest trouble to make the national news is bullying at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway which apparently contributed to the suicide of a pupil. School and council have been at loggerheads. Listeners are bound to ask themselves: is that not the council which lost Pounds 23 million?

There have been three reports on problems at the school. It is important to separate media interest in bullying, especially when it had tragic consequences, from the Scottish Office's concern about the management of the school and relations between the headteacher and director of education. Outside observers expressed surprise that a problem familiar in urban settings should surface in an island community which sets store by moral values and religious observance. But godliness does not imply goodness, and not all Lewis people can be called godly, or would want to be. In a town the size of Stornoway youngsters behave as they do on the mainland, and there is concern about the extent of alcohol abuse among teenagers. So no school can avoid dealing with society's ills.

The Nicolson Institute has learnt the hard way, and the Education Minister is right to look ahead rather than to encourage continuing recriminations. Restoring confidence in the school management will be a challenge. The headteacher appears not to have given the firm lead that inspectors look for. The result is not necessarily an unhappy staffroom. Teachers hope that the achievements of the Nicolson are recognised as well as the problems. But absence of clear policies leaves a management exposed, and that has contributed to the head's difficulties.

So, too, has long-standing tension between school and council. Ten years ago it landed the previous head in trouble. There are only two six-year secondaries in the Western Isles (a decade ago only one). The director of education has to resist the temptation to interfere in a way which would be impossible if he had responsibility for a number of schools. Heads have to be tactful with fault-finding councillors. The report suggests that neither the director nor the Nicolson head heeded the New Testament injunction to turn the other cheek. When there are personality clashes in a small community, what place is there for HMIs' prized benchmarks of self-audit and lists of performance indicators?

Can management tools cope with human nature? The answer is yes only if they create an open and democratic atmosphere. Pupils and teachers are closer to the realities of school life than heads and directors. Hierarchy and the sensitivities it breeds belong to another age, which seems to persist in Stornoway. The latest bout of bad publicity for a council which worries excessively about who talks to the media ought to lead to a fresh approach.

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