Centuries of island education

11th December 1998 at 00:00
A VEHEMENT THIRST AFTER KNOWLEDGE. By John Graham. Shetland Times, Pounds 20.

As a history graduate who devoted his working life to the public education service in Shetland, few are better qualified than John Graham to write of four centuries of education in the islands. He does not disappoint.

With meticulous reference to sources, the reader is steered through the 1600s to the present day as the author skillfully highlights the underlying forces.

Initially education was seen as a tool to promote understanding of the scriptures. In this, the civil authorities were glad to assist, while the lairds worried they would be denied access to compliant fishermen. The early providers were the Edinburgh-based Scottish Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge followed later by the churches.

As the economy developed different skills were required and education became the passport to new careers. In 1862 the flagship Anderson Educational Institute, was established by gift of Arthur Anderson, founder of the PO Line. This was in the face of resistance by the local establishment, who were accused of fearing the "looming labourer's son raising himself by means of the education obtained at the institute".

A recurring theme is the constant struggle to secure funding. The reluctance of the heritors to meet their obligations; the limited funding from the SSPCK leading sometimes to schools rotating every two or three years around different parts of the county.

One early school at Walls, called Happyhansel because of the huge goodwill evinced by the community effort surrounding its construction, was to be funded in part by a fine on "ante-nuptial fornicators" - surely a rich funds stream were it in operation today!

As we appear to move towards a new obsession with exam results and "performance measurement", placing our faith in charismatic headteachers, it is salutary to reflect on the unhappy experience of the Anderson headteacher, Robert Young, sacked for no good reason in 1899 by a board described as "an influence of evil...a very bad piece of local tyranny, activated by personal hostility".

We are also reminded of the curriculum distortion caused by the "payment by results" regime. Yet, some "modernisers" would have us take that route again!

Throughout the period covered there shines the enduring commitment of this small, distant community to education. Visitors today will see a network of schools and vocational provision which is second to none, including a superb wee school on Britain's remotest island, Foula, where, in 1716, it was noted that the people had "a very vehement thirst and desire after knowledge".

Ronnie Smith is general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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