Islands of extremes

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Martin Whittaker looks for work on an archipelago owned by the Prince of Wales.

Isles of Scilly? Now you're talking: the quiet life, the golden beaches, the clear blue sea...

Indeed. The Scillies must seem an attractive proposition for any teacher wanting to flee the rat race. They are an archipelago of small islands situated 28 miles in the Atlantic ocean off the south-west tip of Cornwall.

Only five of them are inhabited: St Mary's, Tresco, St Martin's, Bryher and St Agnes.

The Isles of Scilly have a population of around 2,000 and a climate mild enough to support sub-tropical plants, although in parts the islands are also prone to harsh Atlantic weather.

The Scillies don't often make national headlines, but when they do they do it in style. Historically, these islands have been notorious for claiming ships. One of the latest, seven years ago, was a container ship called the MV Cita, which foundered on the rocks. Islanders came to the rescue, stripping the ship's containers of their cargo of trainers, clothing and computer goods while the police looked on, powerless to stop them.

This sounds fun. When can I start?

Now here's the thing. The Isles of Scilly is a place of huge contradiction: beautiful beaches, treacherous rocks; mild climate, Atlantic storms. The same is true when it comes to education.

A good proportion of Scillonian children are able and come from comfortable homes where they get good support. Given this and the beauty of these islands, you would imagine teachers would be queuing to get in there. Yet the Scillies have a big problem recruiting and retaining teachers. And it's largely down to Prince Charles.

I'm confused. What has Prince Charles got to do with teaching on the Scilly Isles?

Most of the land on the islands is owned by the Prince's estate, the Duchy of Cornwall, so there is very little property for sale. Because of this, house prices are among the highest in the country and nearly a third of the islands' housing stock is for holiday or second homes. Between April and June this year, only one property was sold, and that was an apartment which fetched Pounds 330,000. According to the Isles of Scilly education authority, this lack of affordable accommodation is putting teachers off, though the authority has negotiated a subsidy from the Government to help house teachers.

Tell me more about the schools and education authority.

There is only one school and it has been struggling. Two years ago, the Five Islands school opened as a single institution covering education from four to sixteen, replacing five separate schools on the islands.

But in June last year, inspectors placed the school in special measures, declaring the leadership and management "poor and ineffective" and citing recruitment and retention of staff as problems. Isles of Scilly education authority has also taken some flak from inspectors, who last year declared its overall effectiveness poor and its weaknesses considerable, especially in school improvement and social inclusion.

The authority has just contracted out its school improvement and early years services to Cambridge Education Associates.

Yet despite inspectors' findings, the Scillies' exam results are high - this year, 89 per cent of GCSE pupils gained five or more top grades. There is no post-16 provision on the islands; students attend FE colleges or sixth forms on the mainland.

Is there much to do when the marking is done?

St Mary's, the biggest island, has around three-quarters of the population and has most of the accommodation. It also has five pubs, hotel bars, restaurants, a disco and a social club. There are sports facilities including golf, cricket, tennis, sailing, scuba diving and fishing.

The Scillies are renowned for their natural beauty and are dotted with remains of ancient settlements and monuments. Tresco, the second biggest island, has a variety of scenery from wild and windswept to sub-tropical gardens and sandy beaches. St Agnes, meanwhile, is just a mile wide and virtually unspoilt.

Any famous sons or daughters?

Er... not really, no. Labour prime minister Harold Wilson used to holiday on the Isles of Scilly during the 1960s.

Any famous shipwrecks?

Plenty of those - there are estimated to be some 600 wrecks in the waters around the Scillies. In 1707, four ships from the British Navy fleet were wrecked and hundreds of men drowned when the ships lost their way. The Commander of the fleet, the splendidly named Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel, survived and was washed up on St Mary's where, so legends say, a local woman murdered him to steal his ring.

Other wrecks include the SS Schiller, which went down in 1875 with the loss of 335 men, women and children and the super tanker Torrey Canyon, which hit the rocks in 1967 spilling 540,000 litres of crude oil.

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