HMI to probe troubled Nicolson Institute

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Western Isles moves to end controversy over policies on bullying. Neil Munro reports

The troubled Nicolson Institute in Stornoway is to be the subject of a special HMI inquiry ordered this week by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister.

This rare move will complement steps already taken by the Western Isles Council to restore confidence in the school which has been at the centre of a controversy over bullying since the suicide of a pupil shortly after she had been assaulted in Stornoway town centre. Two teenage girls were subsequently charged and convicted.

The council had invited the Scottish Office to send in inspectors to review the school's guidance service and its anti-bullying policies. Mr Wilson announced that this would now be subsumed within a wider inspection focusing on "the care and welfare of pupils and related issues".

The council also announced that it would carry out a wide-ranging review into the management of the school, which will be seen as a further question mark over Donald Macdonald, the Nicolson's rector for the past seven years.

Internal management arrangements are to be investigated by Neil Galbraith, the director of education. In a parallel and highly unusual move Brian Stewart, the council's chief executive, will turn the spotlight on the school's relationship with the community following publicity surrounding the case which has badly damaged the image of Stornoway.

The dramatic turn of events will have lent weight to the claim by councillors that Mr Macdonald was guilty of complacency in his reaction to the suicide of Katherine Jane Morrison, aged 16, and its aftermath. The rector's dismissal of this charge and a public attack on councillors who showed "ignorance and ill-will" led to a written warning.

It also emerged this week that Rodney Mackenzie, a leading member of the Nicolson's staff, had been summoned to a disciplinary hearing for defending the school in the letters page of the Stornoway Gazette, in defiance of council rules banning employees from contact with the media.

Staff insistence that bullying is not a significant problem at the school, despite a number of high-profile incidents, has now been supported by Andrew Mackenzie, the school board chairman. No parent, pupil or member of staff had approached the board about the problem, Mr Mackenzie said.

"Staff are aware of the anti-bullying policy and take steps to deal with bullies and bullying when it arises and these policies are working," he said. "The school board shares the view of the school that isolated bullying incidents do occur. We all agree that one bullying incident is one too many."

The parents of a pupil who had been an alleged bullying victim have come forward to commend the school for its action in dealing with the case. Alan and Catherine Farquharson told the local newspaper: "The matter was dealt with satisfactorily by the rector and we see no reason to chastise him. Putting a man out of his job is not going to solve bullying."

A call for more parents to support the school was made in a passionate address at the prizegiving ceremony last Friday by the Rev Iver Martin, a former minister at Stornoway Free Church who was chaplain to the Nicolson Institute.

Mr Martin pointed out that the assault on the dead girl did not happen in school hours or on school premises. It occurred in the middle of the town between people who were old enough to be married. The tragic incident was a reflection upon a community not simply a school, he said.

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