Didgeridoo in the heather

19th June 1998 at 01:00
Fiona MacLeod visits Scoraig, an isolated community which will open its own secondary school for five pupils in August

There are no roads to Scoraig. No mains electricity, no gas pipelines, no telegraph poles. A scattering of crofts crouch on the peat and rock of this remote Rossshire peninsula in some of the wildest and loveliest of Scotland's west coast.

Scoraig can only be reached by private boat, or more than an hour's walk along cattle tracks through hills. The 80-odd inhabitants get to the shops, the doctor and the secondary school by open wooden boat on a one-mile sea crossing, and then on to Ullapool or Gairloch, 30 miles north or south. There is no church or community centre, just heart-lifting hills, a stone jetty, sheep, ponies, cattle - and, now, two schools.

When Scoraig Secondary School opens for its first term this August, it will be the smallest secondary in Britain. Its five pupils will sit at a wooden table in the two-roomed former Free Church and begin a curriculum familiar to children as far away as Morningside and Milngavie. Their home life could not be more different. The land is part of the Dundonnell estate, currently up for sale. The last of the indigenous crofters, frail and elderly, moved to Ullapool in the 1950s.

A few years later the incomers began to settle. The first few families divided up and worked the original crofts, the Lotts of Scoraig. They were hippy types, isolationists of independent means and determined characters looking for their own way of life.

Thirty years on the impression is less hippy community, more pioneering wild west. The inhabitants of Scoraig are individuals with as many philosophies of life as there are households.

Some are crofters, there is a boat-builder, a postie, the primary school headmistress and her Hungarian husband, a potter, musicians, each living their own life in the way they see fit. If they hold one thing in common it is a desire to have their children at home while they go to school.

For the families on Scoraig, like many other communities in the remote reaches of Scotland, this has its problems. The older children who study at Gairloch High School leave in the boat on Monday morning and return each Friday afternoon.

Each journey takes half an hour and sometimes the sea is too rough for the boat to cross. Then there is the problem of accommodation. Gairloch Bamp;Bs cater for weekend walkers or holiday makers, not for 11 year olds away from home for the first time, needing help with homework or somewhere to practise the violin.

There are now four 11 year olds on Scoraig and 12-year-old Jake, who has spent the last year being home tutored. Highland Council's accommodation grant does not cover the full Bamp;B costs. Anyway, the parents say there simply aren't the homes in Gairloch suitable to take their children. But they want a mainstream education for their children, and like the can-do types they are, they have decided to provide a school themselves.

The parents have formed themselves into the Scoraig Teaching Group. They have appointed a full-time headteacher, 34-year-old Jan Grigg, newly qualified from Northern College in science and biology, with three terms' supply teaching experience near Inverness. The Scoraig parents are putting the teacher's house in order. Jan will give birth to her third child any moment now, and move on to the peninsula with her husband and two daughters in July, ready for the first term in August. It is a daunting prospect.

Jan, however, exudes enormous enthusiasm. A Liverpudlian, she ran her own business, has travelled widely, and worked in isolated communities including farms in New Zealand and Northern Ireland. Put aside the not inconsiderable issue of not having run a school before, and you feel if anyone is up to the challenge, she is. "My role will be bringing people together, being a diplomat and keeping the whole positive energy behind the school going. My ideas are fully in tune with the parents' and I just can't wait to get going. I have to expect the first term will be a bit chaotic, and think long term.

"I want to build links with the mainland schools. The main aim will be social contact for our children, and the opportunity to play team games. Also school trips, and perhaps science and technology because of equipment we are lacking. We hope we'll offer their schools something too."

This is not the first time Scoraig has set up its own school. In 1987 they started one with 10 pupils and an all-volunteer teaching staff of parents. Highland Council agreed to grant pound;13,000 annually, index-linked to 2002 - the sum it saved by not providing lodging and travel for the children.

In 1988 a registered teacher was appointed. The following year the rebuilding of the ruined church as a purpose-built school was complete. HMI inspected and granted full registration.

But by 1994 the school had just one pupil. Others had opted for Gairloch and there were no children of the right age coming up. The school was mothballed and the teacher left Scoraig.

The contract with Highland Council still stands, with a 1998 value of pound;14,536. As the authority's capitation fee per child is pound;6,800, the authority is getting a bargain out of the four years left to run. After that, everything will be up for renegotiation.

The council's cash will pay Jan Grigg's salary. Running costs, books, equipment and all other funding will have to be met by the community. This includes hefty bills for coal and the wind generator. Somehow the cash will have to be found. Each parent will pay pound;5 a week year round. Beyond that hopes are on jumble sales, begging letters to charities and promises of help from contacts within education.

"Highland Council has been enormously helpful," says Jan Grigg firmly. "The community is very grateful for its financial help, and the education advisers in Dingwall and Inverness have been wonderful in offering support. John Fyffe, senior adviser for the council, has supplied me with S1 and S2 teaching units. People are very curious about Scoraig. They want the school to work, and I have been amazed by the support offered already. We'll need all the help going!" The Scoraig Teaching Group will teach a full curriculum of eight Standard grades under Jan Grigg's guidance. Like parents everywhere, they want their children to gain whatever qualifications they need to go on to whatever they choose to do.

The school has two computers, with modems, e-mail and the Internet, thanks to a BT and EU-funded telecottage. This will provide distance learning and Internet links to other schools.

Jan Grigg has drawn up a development plan, with action targets and policy statements. The parents are confident of a long lifespan for the school, as there will be 11 children in the primary school next term, and a veritable baby boom - 17 children under five - will keep it stocked for some time.

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