Fit for a queen

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
In our continuing series on small schools, Jean McLeish visits a primary in Aberdeenshire, where a visit by a member of the royal family is not that unusual an experience

THE VIEW from this classroom window must be one of the most sensational in Scotland. If you're going to gaze out of the window and daydream, Crathie School has the perfect outlook.

It offers a panorama of the lush forests of Royal Deeside with Lochnagar in the distance and Balmoral Castle on the doorstep. It is a place where history is made, a Highland retreat for the royal family. And if the royals are not in residence, there's always a regular parade of windswept tourists in billowing plastic ponchos.

The register at Crathie School in Royal Deeside has been carefully updated since the first pupil's name was entered in August 1873. Donald Stewart's details are meticulously written in black ink in the big leather-bound book, along with the names of his 45 classmates. That was 17 years after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert moved into the newly-built Balmoral Castle in 1856, and it's been the Scottish home of the Royal Family ever since.

In the school hallway, a display cabinet showcases some historic treasures gifted to this Aberdeen-shire primary. Tiny carved figures, porcelain ornaments and mementoes of trips overseas line the glass shelves, many of them gifts from Queen Mary, the Queen's grandmother.

It's not quite a one-teacher school, but Sheila Bernard and Caroline Taylor share the role across the week. Today, there are 14 pupils and they're far too busy preparing the magazine to gaze out the window. Seven pupils are children of staff on Balmoral Estate and some are from neighbouring Invercauld and Abergeldie estates.

Crathie consists of a few houses by the roadside and other homes scattered around neighbouring countryside. It's on the main road, 50 miles from Aberdeen, so though winters can be harsh, snow is usually cleared quickly.

A few hundred yards from the school is the famous Crathie Kirk, where the royals worship. This church was built in 1895, overlooking the remains of the 14th-century church and the cemetery where Queen Victoria's servant John Brown is buried.

Kirsty MacKenzie, 11, is the daughter of the minister. She's about to move to Aboyne Acad-emy, a few miles away. Her classmates span the full primary age range and play well together. They're braving the wind and drizzle this morning to learn some new football skills, as part of their course with Dave Farmer, community coach from Aberdeen Football Club. Some of the boys are enjoying themselves so much, they would probably come out in their shorts in a blizzard.

Ten-year old Euan Smith's dad works as a labourer at Balmoral and his friend Cameron Inglis's dad is head gardener. Cameron is two years younger than Euan and at P3 stage, but they get on well.

"I've got tons of friends like Cameron here, and the staff at school are friendly. I think there's more to do here than in Aberdeen and there's not as much noise or cars," says Euan.

This school takes full advantage of its fantastic rural setting, under the guidance of acting headteacher Lilian Field (who is also head at Strathdon Primary 40 minutes away). In a few days, pupils will go fishing on one of the beats on the River Dee and when there's enough snow they take to their skis on nearby Glenshee.

The children also have occasional private visits from their neighbours across the road. Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited on their honeymoon and the children have visited the gardens at Birkhall to get tips for the organic garden they're cultivating for their Eco Schools Green Flag Award. They grow potatoes, carrots, rhubarb, strawberries and peas and raised Pounds 17 with a recent crop of potatoes.

Mrs Bernard is on duty, keeping a careful eye on the football pitch where play continues in a mist of rain. She has taught here for the past three years, driving nine miles from Braemar, and says community relationships are strong, especially between the school and the royal estate. "They're very good and always wanting to help, sometimes small things like sending the men to help with the Christmas tree or putting up the stage in the Church or doing something for us in the garden.

"You get to know the children well and their parents. If they've got something that's bothering them, then you know what it is because it's such a small community everybody knows everything," says Mrs Bernard, whose husband was a pupil here in the 1950s.

"And the older ones look after the younger ones; they're very good that way. It's harder work because you've a lot more prep-aration because you've got all the classes to cater for. The classroom assistant makes life a lot easier though."

That role is performed by Denise Smith, who first became involved with the school 14 years ago when her children were pupils. Her husband has been the plumber at Balmoral for 20 years and was recently presented with the Royal Victorian Medal at Buckingham Palace for service to the Queen.

There are more than 50 houses for staff working at Balmoral and Mrs Buchanan says you have to follow protocol if you meet the Queen in the grounds. "If you meet her that day it would be 'Good Day, Your Majesty' and if you meet her that day later on, it would be 'Good Day, Ma'am'. But the next day you go back to 'Your Majesty', the first time you see her that day," Mrs Smith explains.

"It's a lovely school and we do everything as a school, instead of as a class of P7s or a class of P2s. We all do it together, so the wee ones learn from the big ones and sometimes the big ones learn from the wee ones," Mrs Smith says with a laugh. "My children got a good grounding here, because there's so few of them they can have more one-to-one. And there's more time to work with those who are struggling.

"I don't think they find it lonely. Usually there's enough of them at the moment there are three P7s and they are all girls, so it's fine for them. And the P6s who are coming up are all boys."

Because they live in reasonable proximity, children spend time with each other out of school, having sleepovers at each other's homes or going on trips together. "They can go swimming at Aboyne or Highland Dancing in Braemar, they can do piping in Ballater. So there's still lots of things going on, but being rural you have to travel that wee bit," Mrs Smith says.

Crathie School has three classrooms decorated in warm, light tones with bright curtains. It was re-decorated when Mrs Field arrived three years ago, and the children voted for their favourite fabrics from a selection of samples.

Mrs Field travels to Crathie from her home in Corgarff 13 miles away. She's been headteacher at Strathdon for 15 years and three years ago was invited to add Crathie to her role. Earlier in her career, she taught overseas, including a spell as a volunteer in Pakistan, working with children with speech and hearing impairments. Strathdon has 33 pupils in two classes and strong links have been forged between the pupils and staff at the two schools.

"The link with Strathdon is particularly valuable for staff. They have worked together since I started working here and it's had a real impact on the delivery of education in both schools," she says.

"It certainly enables us to work together on different areas of the curriculum, particularly new initiatives underway at the moment, like A Curriculum for Excellence and health-promoting schools."

Enterprise is also encouraged in the countryside the school magazine, Growing Green at Crathie School, has given pupils early experience of the publishing world. "It's involved the children in communication with different businesses in the community, offering them advertising space. So they're having to make telephone calls and send emails and deal with finances all different aspects of setting up a small business," Mrs Field says.

The main focus of the magazine has been their efforts to become an eco friendly school: "Over 18 months we have developed a bio-diversity garden and the children have been hands-on planting and growing vegetables, creating a wildflower meadow area."

The school is registered as an eco-school and is awaiting accreditation for the Green Flag Award. It has also been accredited as a health-promoting school at the Commended level. That has involved a range of sporting activities such as Tai Chi, with tennis and the football coaching sessions that are underway today.

A bequest from a former pupil pays for some of the activities children enjoy at this school, with the stipulation that the trust fund be used for the benefit of pupils during the session.

So there is never an idle moment for these youngsters, thanks to the efforts of the teaching staff: "The organisation in the classroom has to be very carefully managed and there has to be an adequate amount of support for the teachers and the children," Mrs Field continues.

P6 pupil William Marsden, 11, is joint editor of the school magazine along with Kirsty MacKenzie. He took time out from an imminent deadline to tell us more about school life.

"It's quite nice because you get to do lots of things, because there are not that many of us," says William. "My dad works at Balmoral and my sister Marie comes here as well. We've been here about five years."

Marie, nine, says she cycles to school from Balmoral with their mum: "When it's icy and cold and snowy, we usually walk just in case we slip," she says. And what's it like for a nine-year-old girl living on Balmoral Estate? "It's quite nice and peaceful," Marie reflects.

Her friend Beth Richardson, sitting next to her, adds an afterthought: "Except when you get tourists knocking on your window."

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