Jill of all trades enjoys island life

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

Lisa Bracken had taken an pound; 8,000 pay cut. Her family, once less than an hour's drive away, were now three plane journeys away. Pubs, restaurants and cinemas were non-existent. She had to put milk in the freezer because food supplies were always in danger of being cut off.

And her reaction when she arrived in this forlorn place? "If I die now, I'll die happy."

Mrs Bracken, 38, is headteacher at Fair Isle Primary, the UK's most remote school. The island is officially part of Shetland, but lies isolated in the North Atlantic. Mainland Shetland is two-and-a-half hours away by boat, or 25 minutes in an eight-seater plane, which is often grounded by battering winds.

When she arrived to take up her post in March, the contrast with her previous school was stark. In 2006, she had been seconded as depute head to help turn around a troubled west London primary. Staff turnover was high, "extreme behaviour" common, and 90 per cent of the 300 pupils did not speak English as their first language.

The school roll at Fair Isle Primary is eight; the population of the three-mile-long island 70. In a community where getting along is crucial, pupil misbehaviour is rarely an issue.

Mrs Bracken and her Irish husband, Declan, had been considering a move out of the city for some time. When Mr Bracken read an article in The Times about the 18-month struggle to find a permanent head for Fair Isle, he left it lying around to see if it would pique his wife's interest.

A short time later, she was making the eight-hour journey north for an interview - a flight to Aberdeen, another to Sumburgh on the southernmost point of Shetland main- land, a 23-mile trip to Tingwall airport, then a flight to Fair Isle.

She used to backpack and got a taste for working in far-flung communities after a year in a school on a Ugandan island. Arriving on Fair Isle, she felt the same "exhilaration".

Her abiding first impressions are the camaraderie of islanders on the inbound flight and the community's involvement in picking a new head. She and a candidate from Hampshire, two of three shortlisted applicants, had coffee with the pupils' parents, and two parents formed half of the interview panel.

The interviewers were looking for "someone who could teach in quite a varied way", since the new head might be the only teacher a pupil encountered. They were also assessing whether candidates would contribute to the wider community. When a boat arrives with the big weekly haul of provisions for the island shop, for example, people drop what they are doing and go to help.

"The constraints of living on the island make the community strong because you have to rely on each other," says Mrs Bracken. She was offered the job and persuaded her family - five-year-old son Oisin and two-year-old daughter Orla - that it was the right move, without their ever having visited the island.

The family's commitment was reflected by their financial sacrifices: Mrs Bracken's salary dropped from pound;52,000 to pound;44,000, and her husband gave up his nursing job. He hopes to get occasional relief work when the island's nurse is absent.

The family had been wary of moving to a rural community of gated villas and holiday homes that invariably lie empty. Fair Isle, by contrast, is characterised by its bustling community hall adjoining the school. It never shuts and it hosts events from boisterous traditional dances to educational slide shows.

There is a birthday party or barbecue somewhere on the island most weekends, while visiting bird watchers flock to the observatory in the north, which often hosts social events. The Brackens have had only one Saturday night in, since their arrival. "We have a much more active social life than in London," says Mrs Bracken. "Some people say they come for the social life - it's a plus."

She enjoys the quirks of teaching in a small island community: a recent visit to a traditional spinning wheel maker was a lesson in industry and entrepreneurship; the pupils receive tuition in Shetland dialect and she has to help them make sense of the many different words for haystacks. They also enjoy the most delicious school meals she has ever tasted - home-made roast chicken being a typical example.

Nothing about Fair Isle has caused Mrs Bracken to doubt her suitability for the school: "If you can teach and like teaching, I think you can teach anywhere."

She has had to become a "Jack of all trades", since often there is no one to delegate to. The only other staff are a teacher who works with the school's one nursery-age child and steps in for Mrs Bracken when necessary; two part-time classroom assistants; a part-time secretary; and a part-time cleaner.

"I have to keep an eye on everything: the guttering, cleaning, cooking meals, playtimes," she says. "The sheer volume of little jobs is huge."

One of the biggest challenges is preparing pupils for moving to Anderson High on the mainland, where the roll is about 900. ^P4s and 5s meet up annually with pupils from other island schools on Fetlar, Foula and Skerries, so that they will see some familiar faces at secondary.

The Brackens were initially concerned that they might have to move away when Oisin and Orla reached secondary age, but the "well-rounded" teenagers of Fair Isle have changed their minds. There are 10 youngsters who attend Anderson High, boarding in Lerwick and travelling home every third weekend. They play a big part in organising community events and, Mrs Bracken believes, they provide impressive role models for her pupils.

The divide between work and home life is more blurred than Mrs Bracken has ever known. Her back door is three yards away from the school; Fair Isle heads cannot sink into anonymity once the school bell rings. "People know where you are and knock on the door at any time. It could be 11pm and someone might bring you fish - people will just walk in. I like that."

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