Dornoch's quiet return to the fold;School Management

6th March 1998 at 00:00
Scotland's only opted-out secondary is inching back to council control, reports Seonag MacKinnon

A new dance is in the process of inventing itself, although it is unlikely ever to make it into any official register of the Scottish Country Dance Society. Since the general election, Highland Council and Dornoch Academy, which cast off from Highland Region in 1994, have been engaged in tentative steps towards coming together. It is something of a limbo dance, as the two partners have not taken part in much action and have not joined together. The steps and stances in this unprecedented management situation are, however, fascinating.

Within days of Brian Wilson emerging from Downing Street as Scotland's new Education Minister, a ban was put on more schools following in the wake of Dornoch Academy and St Mary's Primary, Dunblane, by opting out of council management using controversial Conservative legislation. But as yet the Government has not scheduled parliamentary time to revoke the legislation, so the band of two are able to remain outside local authority control.The wait could be as long as two years.

Meanwhile Highland councillors voted last month not to begin formal negotiations with Dornoch Academy, aimed at persuading the school to come back into the fold voluntarily. This would have involved extensive consultation of Dornoch's parents and staff, associated primary schools and neighbouring secondaries. The results would then go to the Secretary of State. Councillors wish to meet the Minister first, although they have no idea when he will be able to find a window in his diary for them.

One observer in Highland Council sums up the stance of members towards central Government as "Get off your butt and get the legislation revoked, so that we don't have to dance in circles round the camp fire". The Scottish Office, however, would like to sit on the sidelines and see Dornoch reintegrate quietly without any orders or brouhaha.

Geographically and politically remote from the buckpassing going on between local and central government is headteacher John Garvie. If he is aware of the political machinations, he declines to comment on them. "We have never wanted to be at the centre of political controversy," he says. "I am aware that anything I say may be used as a stick to beat the other side with."

Garvie says that Dornoch Academy - which was under threat of closure because of low numbers - did not opt out four years ago to make a political point, but so that it could become a six-year rather than a two-year school. The council confirms that Dornoch, which once had as few as 80 pupils but now has 123, is on course to have 200 by the year 2000 - a respectable roll arguably in an authority where secondary school rolls can be as low as 50. On the other hand, the council would make a substantial saving if Dornoch, which costs pound;400,000 a year, were shut and pupils transferred to Golspie High School or Tain Royal Academy.

Expansion of the school is having a significant effect on Dornoch, says Garvie. "The heart went out of the community when the school lost its six-year status in 1968. The town lost a lot of professionals. Now there is a population drift back and confidence is returning to this part of Sutherland."

So, what was the effect of opting out on the school itself? Surprisingly, Garvie says: "Our experience is totally anodyne. With devolved school management coming in everywhere, there's no great difference between us and other schools. We continued to make use of council services, such as catering and psychological, and the council decided on our finance.

"Highland Council is a very good local authority to be with," says this former depute rector of Gairloch High School. "We will go on as before, but in a different framework. We are a state school and think a lot of the Scottish state sector."

He predicts that most parents will be "quite happy" returning to the fold, as long as Dornoch remains a six-year school, and they accept that like any other school they can receive no guarantees. One close observer of council activities believes that the school is not being naive in hoping that its doors will stay open after it rejoins the fold. "Closure is not necessarily a foregone conclusion."

Garvie resolutely declines to say whether he found it preferable to manage an opted-out school. He points out that it was "hard work" and "a little frightening not to be part of a large genus", but he enjoyed the speed with which decisions could be reached and implemented.

He also feels that he and the school were aided and enriched by the "tremendous input" from the board of management. Members who met once a month for three or four hours offered their skills and knowledge on topics such as computing, finance, Europe, maintenance of the school building and communication. "A headteacher's job can be lonely. To have fellow adults involved in the direction of a school is very helpful," says Garvie.

But the headteacher rushes to qualify these observations by adding that any school in the 1990s has experienced more devolved management and greater involvement of parents and the wider community. "There really isn't much difference between our school and others. We're not unhappy as we are, but we are trying to achieve a smooth transition to the dominant part of the state sector."

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