The ferryboat federation

29th August 2008 at 01:00
After years of strife, Five Islands School on the idyllic Isles of Scilly has been rated outstanding by Ofsted

You don't realise just how small the Isles of Scilly are until you are virtually on top of them.

It takes just a quarter of an hour to fly from the mainland to the tiny archipelago, 28 miles off the Cornish coast.

But 13 minutes after the plane - essentially a car with wings, small enough for you to see the smears on the pilot's dials and paint flaking off the propeller - trundled off Lands End airport, there is still nothing to see except deep blue, white flecked Atlantic Ocean and turquoise sky.

Eventually, a tiny clump of rock and grass appears through the wispy clouds, although it seems far too small to be your destination.

This is Scilly, you realise, as you make a sudden descent on to this UK outpost, home to just 2,100 people, including 25 teachers and 270 pupils.

Numbers may be small but education has always been a very serious business here. Compulsory schooling was introduced more than 30 years before mainland Britain, thanks to the efforts of Augustus Smith.

The merchant banker, who leased the islands from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1834, charged pupils a penny to attend school and twopence if they skipped it, with predictably successful results.

Today, Scillonian education is going through another golden era. Last year Ofsted rated The Five Islands School - the 4-16 federated school with bases on four of the five inhabited islands - as "outstanding". This summer the good news continued as the Isles of Scilly council finished top nationally in terms of the percentage of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in the three Rs, thanks to the efforts of its only school.

These accolades seem even sweeter following a troubled decade that saw threats of closure, the local authority condemned by inspectors as poor, and a very fraught school merger. Only six years ago, it was in special measures.

Such problems are difficult to comprehend when strolling through sun dappled woodland on St Mary's, the biggest island where everything is within easy walking distance, to the secondary school.

The flat-roofed building is actually well past its sell-by-date and is hot and cramped. But the views are stupendous. In the art room, huge picture windows look out over the bay below. There is so much sea and sky that the art teacher regularly complains of running out of blue paint. A white sandy beach is just two minutes away, where pupils go for geography and science lessons on sunny days.

It sounds like an idyllic place to teach, and in many ways it is. As most of its residents smilingly tell you, living on the Isles of Scilly is like being in the 1950s.

Everyone knows each other, people really do leave their front doors unlocked and even the security lock on the school's front entrance is taped open.

As for violent crime: "I did once find a penknife," admits Sue Major, Five Islands' deputy head and primary leader. "But I was assured by the 10- year-old boy that he was using it for `whittling'."

Yet, despite the attractions, recruiting the right teachers to work here is difficult.

"People often come with a pre-conceived idea, either from holidaying here or from this romantic notion of small islands in the Atlantic," said Mrs Major. "But living here undoubtedly brings pressures."

One of those pressures is housing, or rather the lack of it. Homes rarely come on the market and, when they do, prices are astronomical. So teachers end up having to rent smaller and less comfortable accommodation than they would get on the mainland.

Then there is the goldfish bowl factor, perhaps best summed up by Andrew Penman, Five Islands' head: "It is a very beautiful place but you are a very public figure and you are living in and among the people whose children you are educating. That is both a pleasure and pressure," he said.

Some prospective teachers underestimate these difficulties, according to Tim Guthrie, chair of governors. "They are the people who say `I have lived in a small village so I know what it's like'," he said. "But it isn't like that, because in a small village you can drive off in your car."

High staff turnover was just one of the problems here at the start of the decade. Back then there were five separate schools - four primaries and one secondary - and the two biggest, both on St Mary's, had been designated by Ofsted as schools causing concern.

The Government then gave all five a brutal ultimatum - merge into a single federation or risk losing funding for the smaller islands.

That did not go down well in three outlying schools, as Susanna Gates, who has taught on Tresco for 10 years, remembers: "We were all successful schools that Ofsted had said were doing very well.

"We didn't want to lose our independence and we didn't want to be lumped into a failing school, which is what happened."

The federation took place in April 2002. By the following summer the head had resigned as the new school began a two-year spell in special measures. More upheaval followed as the tiny local authority contracted out many of its education services to the private Cambridge Education Associates and an interim head struggled to turn the school round.

But by the time Mr Penman arrived in September 2005, he had a stable platform to build on.

With patience and diplomacy he persuaded parents on the smaller islands of the benefits of boating their primary-aged children to St Mary's every Wednesday for federated activities involving everything from judo to beach surveys.

He succeeded, won over sceptical staff, and turned Five Islands into a genuinely united school while preserving the keenly guarded identities of its outposts.

It is a template that he believes others could learn from: "If you can federate schools separated by large stretches of water, then you can probably do the same with small schools in rural areas separated by ten minutes on a minibus."

The benefits are apparent when you take the 20-minute boat trip to St Agnes, the smallest and least populated of the inhabited islands.

A five-minute walk from the quay takes you to the centre, where a 19th- century, single-classroom schoolhouse nestles beneath a white lighthouse. Here, Louise Simmonds teaches six pupils - four years ago there were just two.

"The best thing about the job is the amount of personalised contact you have with the kids," she said. "You know them inside out."

Bad weather can see her stranded on this tiny settlement of just 70 people for weeks at a time. But Mrs Simmonds describes that predicament as "brilliant", thanks to the "best pub in the world" and a welcoming population.

One pupil, 10-year-old Alan Anderson, is the only football lover in his class. The goalposts outside the schoolroom allow him to practise penalties. But it is federation that gives him the opportunity for a proper game, and it has also been good for his teacher.

"It would be a much harder without federation and the extended staffroom it brings with it," she said. "It could be a very lonely job if it was just me stuck on this rock."

Federation does not come cheap. Free weekly boarding places on St Mary's are provided for all secondary pupils from outlying islands. But with a new Pounds 13.4m school building about to be approved on St Mary's, the future seems secure.

Though it should include some cheap staff accommodation, many teachers will still have to make do. But as Vickie Newrick, a St Mary's primary teacher, admits, there are consolations.

"The staff meeting in my first week was held on Tresco. As we got on the jet boat in beautiful sunshine I remembered my old commute on the North Circular and thought: `This is amazing'."

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