Magical places to teach

21st July 2000 at 01:00
Up to pound;35,000 a year, a free house, your own generator and lots of friendly people. Taking up a post at a small island school isn't all bad news, says Vicki Samuels.

FOLLOWING recent articles about remote island schools (TESS, June 23 and July 7) I felt compelled to offer a more positive side to living and working in a "fragile" community.

My husband and three children were privileged to be able to live on Canna 16 years ago. There were no children on the island before our arrival, and the school had to be reopened. A teacher was employed solely for our family. She was wonderful and my children benefited so much from her enthusiasm and skill.

I was dismayed to read the description of the present teacher's frustration with the generator, heating, water supply etc. Little or no mention was made of the amazing lifestyle and learning opportunities that Canna, and other islands like it, hold for children. History, geography, ecology and conservation, farming, biology, marine biology, archaeology, meteorology; an abundance of birdlife and wildlife with frequent sightings of sea eagles (Canna is an RSPB reserve with nesting puffins, shearwaters and razorbills) - the list of subjects to learn in everyday life on the island is endless. Living in a small community means learning to work co-operatively, everyone is interdependent.

My husband built a water tank on Sundays, which supplies all the houses, including the school, and in normal conditions this supply always gives adequate fresh (delicious) water. May is always a dry month there, and the water sometimes ran out at the end of a day if people were wasteful.

However, the spring supplying the tank does not run dry and the tank always fills up again overnight. Collecting sea water in a bucket to flush the toilet is a valuable lesson in conservation. More than half the world's population has to live without clean running water, yet we take this precious commodity for granted.

Everyone had their own generator when we lived there. Nobody had a problem with using them at certain times of the day to keep frezers going and washing machines. Why is it difficult then for the teacher to schedule use of the photocopier and the computer to fit in with the times that the generator is on? If heating is a problem what is wrong with a small wood-burning stove? Plenty of driftwood about to fuel it for free.

Canna is a magical place, but you are at the mercy of the elements. To live there happily you have to have a bit of determination and self-sufficiency. Island living is not easy, but it is very satisfying and the islanders are some of the most loyal, genuine and caring people I have ever met.

The teacher is earning at least double everyone else's salary - the going rate is, I believe between pound;30,000-35,000 a year, with a free house, free coal and free diesel (for the generator). Granted, the schoolhouse may not have all the conveniences of modern living, but I do not feel that it is such a priority as your paper suggests.

Good buildings and equipment do not make good schools. It is the quality and skills of the individual teacher that matter. Rural schools are important to the community and I am delighted that Highland councillors have pledged to regenerate them, but it isn't the whole story. We left the island due to my elder son's experience of hostel accommodation when he went to secondary school, and because my youngest child was alone on the island for a year (with his own teacher) with no hope of more families moving in.

I have no complaints about the education my children received there, and the support from the education authority. The situation of children having to leave the islands for secondary education is still a deterrent for many people who might consider living in a remote area, and there is now a smaller population on Canna than 16 years ago.

Maybe with the advent of community learning centres, and Internet access, the need to leave the islands for secondary education won't be a requirement in the future, but this issue needs to be addressed equally with the upgrading of rural primary schools.

Vicki Samuels now lives on Skye.

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