Islands hit by tide of indignation

26th January 1996 at 00:00
Diane Spencer reports on acrimony over plans for an all-age school on the Isles of Scilly. When Baroness Castle visited the Isles of Scilly for Harold Wilson's funeral last year she was given the VIP treatment by the council. When Pat Greenlaw, the chairman, told her that the 21 councillors belonged to no political party, she replied: "How boring."

But it's not. Passions are running high in these islands, some 30 miles from Penzance, over plans to merge the primary school on St Mary's with the only secondary school which serves the four other inhabited isles. The decision now rests with Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary; if she approves the plan it will be the first all-age school to be created in England and Wales.

The merger was suggested by Professor Duncan Graham, former head of the National Curriculum Council, who was appointed last summer by the council as an independent expert to look at options drawn up by an expenditure working party to solve funding problems triggered by falling rolls and the consequent reduction in government grant.

The decision appears to have been prompted by financial considerations, together with falling rolls, rather than academic concern. The Secondary school had a favourable OFSTED report last year and enjoys above average GCSE results.

The islands have benefited from a higher standard spending assessment (a weighting of 1.75) because of the distinctive nature of their isolated community with a population of under 2,000. And the council, a unitary body responsible for every other service including non-privatised water, has been generous in topping up educational expenditure, sometimes at the expense of other departments, explained Philip Hygate, chief executive and secretary for education.

The schools are small: the Isles of Scilly School has 113 pupils: Carn Gwaval, the primary on St Mary's, has 110 (both are expected to fall below 100 by the year 2000); Tresco has 27; St Agnes eight and St Martin's three. The council delegates 92 per cent of the budget.

Professor Graham reckoned that savings of around Pounds 87,000 had to be found and Pounds 61,000 could come from the merger. Carn Gwaval was forced to make a teacher redundant last year, an unheard of event on the islands which have long been cushioned from some harsher realities of the mainland.

Although the consultation period is over, feelings are still strong with petitions circulating against the merger, acrimonious accusations of secrecy, hidden agendas and verbal attacks on personalities which "saddens" older residents who say they have never seen anything like it.

Everyone will tell you of the value attached to education, dating back to the 1840s when Augustus Smith, the Lord protector of the islands, charged parents a penny a day for schooling and fined them twopence if their children bunked off. He was deeply unpopular at the time.

Last Friday around 50 islanders met in the Methodist hall and voted to express their concern about the council's failure to answer queries about why and how the Graham report was commissioned and how much it cost.

The way this meeting was convened and conducted was symptomatic of the close community life on the islands. Anonymous letters were circulated to parents inviting them to the meeting; a notice was posted in shops indicating it was open to the general public; the Methodist minister was invited to chair it as a neutral observer with subsequent rumours that a councillor had threatened to report him to his superiors for dabbling in politics if he did so; a confusion over the status of the meeting - parents only or public; and an attempt by the chairman to stop it turning into a slanging match.

The Rev Brian Mavers, heroically, almost managed that. But suspicion, voiced by at least four of the seven councillors present, that officers and some of their colleagues were holding back information indicated the extent of the discontent of the way the merger plans had been handled. Also indicative of the islanders' near-paranoia were invitations to secret rendezvous to The TES and plain brown envelopes delivered to lodgings by unknown hands.

Governors of the secondary school, with Martin Nicholle, a councillor for Bryher,one of the smaller islands and the most vociferous, are fighting the merger. They have issued statutory objections to the Education Secretary against it after producing their own study and strategy document which concluded that "merger is irrelevant to the safeguarding of education in our islands". The plan was based on "misleading and inaccurate information and the local education authority appears to have handled the matter in an undemocratic and prejudicial manner", they said.

The governors believe that the authority's "hidden agenda" is to gain control of the school by appointing a new governing body for the merged school and a new head, an allegation strongly denied by Mr Hygate and Mr Greenlaw.

In his report, Professor Graham said that a new management and administrative structure designed to extract the maximum educational gain would be essential. He recommended national advertisement for a head, specifying current experience in both sectors and recent substantial management training. He favoured a "light" top tier with no deputies as such, but a combination of phase heads for key stages 1 and 2 and faculty heads for KS3 and 4.

In contrast, the Carn Gwarval primary school governors favour the plan. "I don't know what all the fuss is about," said David Rogers, the chairman. "We began working on the financial problem two years ago. The word merger frightens people. It's really an administrative re-organisation."

Children already share a music specialist, a school band with members from both practise in the secondary, year six children are taught French once a week by two secondary teachers, football and gym are shared between staff from both and school dinners are eaten by secondary staff and pupils in Carn Gwarvel's all-purpose hall. Despite the hoo-ha staff of both schools continue to work and socialise together.

Tim Osborne, the head, said the merger plan was logical. Numbers were falling and it was sensible to lose the top management layer, adding that his future was scarcely rosy as he is two years into a four-year contract. The school is still likely to make another teacher redundant in September come what may. Parents had been kept informed of developments and few had queried the idea, he said. The authority had bent over backwards to have consultations, he said.

But the perception is different the other side of the hill. Mr Nicholle, a resident for five years, has met with refusals to answer enquiries by councillors. He was rebuked by one who told him that his volume of faxes and letters was distracting chief officers from other essential work.

Alun Howells, head of the secondary school, began teaching there in 1966, shortly after it became comprehensive: an initiative which caused a similar furore among the Scillonians. He said:"If we don't get this right, we could lose a lot of pupils to independent schools outside the islands. The merger is based on a financial decision which was then justified in educational terms. "

The financial situation is complicated by the three "off-island" schools which are vital in keeping communities alive, although at a cost. Pupils transfer as weekly boarders to the secondary at the age of 11.

Their board and lodging is free and they have only recently started to pay for school lunches as do the residents of St Mary's, the main island. This "subsidy" has caused some resentment among council tax payers.

Most Scillonians just can't believe that more money will not be forthcoming to maintain the status quo. But raising the council tax is not an option, according to Mr Hygate, as it is within Pounds 90,000 of being capped, and many have a hard time paying the current tax as even basic council houses are rated in high bands.

"They'll find a way getting the money if they want to - the amount they waste on other things," commented a boatman who'd lived there all his life.

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