Northern Lights

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Luring young teachers to outlying areas has never been so easy says Henry Hepburn, thanks to Scotland's waiver scheme

Scottish schools are remarkably diverse. East Renfrewshire's Mearns Primary is believed to be the biggest primary school in Europe; in nearby Glasgow, immigration has resulted in some of the UK's most vibrant, multi- cultural schools.

In contrast, last year, The Times Educational Supplement Scotland travelled 10 hours from Glasgow by train and boat to visit Canna Primary, an island school with one pupil.

It has long been a problem attracting teachers to the farthest reaches of the country, but one which the Scottish Government has addressed in recent years with its preference waiver scheme. Student teachers tick a box which means they could be sent anywhere in the country for their probationary year; as an incentive, they receive a payment that has just been increased to Pounds 8,000.

Gillian Whyte was one of 321 to tick the box in 2006-07 - a record uptake since the waiver's introduction in 2004-05 - and throw the location for her first year of teaching open to chance. The 28-year-old home economics teacher had lived all her life in Lanark, a short drive from Glasgow, and had studied at Strathclyde University.

"I had no ties and wanted to go somewhere different," she says. "I was hoping for one of the islands, to see different places and meet different people - I was getting a bit bored being in the same place."

She was sent to Stromness Academy, one of two secondaries on Orkney, an archipelago of 20,000 inhabitants north of the Scottish mainland. She had never been there, and she was concerned about how she would handle the remoteness.

But Gillian enjoyed herself so much that, having completed her probationary year, she got a full-time permanent job there.

"Stromness Academy has got a nicer atmosphere than a lot of schools," she says. "There are only 430 pupils and people are slightly more laid back.

"The staff get on really well, and the children are fun. There are behaviour problems, but not to the extent of other schools I know."

Gillian has settled well into her surroundings and sometimes falls into the distinctive Orkney lilt that sounds like no mainland Scotland accent. The islands have a rich Viking heritage and Orcadians often say they are closer to Norway.

She was astonished by how flat and green Orkney was, far removed from the rugged desolation in large swathes of rural Scotland.

And she says the sun's brief cameos in midwinter are made up for by the midnight sun in summer.

The distance from international airports has not worried her. Instead she spends her time off exploring Orkney's many sights - it is reputedly more densely laden with archaeological treasures than anywhere in Europe - and working her way through its 70 islands.

Questioned about the downsides, she has to be pushed.

Orkney, outlandishly dubbed the "new Ibiza" by a national newspaper a few years ago, has one credible nightclub. But teachers go out in the knowledge that decorum is advisable since they will be inevitably be spotted by pupils.

"Everybody knows everybody on Orkney, which has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the children," Gillian says.

She misses being close to Glasgow and Edinburgh's shopping, although the capital Kirkwall has more on offer than she imagined. The distance from home can be frustrating, but there have been regular visits from friends and family, who have been taken aback by the vibrancy of Orkney's culture, social scene and landscape.

Education officials there are delighted with how those in the waiver scheme are getting on. This year it brought seven probationary teachers, and five of the authority's 10 secondary probationers had ticked the box.

"From our point of view, the preference waiver has worked really well," says Marilyn Richards, the Orkney's assistant education director. "Without it, we would struggle to fill some of the subjects where there are shortages.

"It's a brave move. It tells you that the person has a bit of get-up-and- go. That bodes well for their prospects of being a good teacher - you have to have confidence and courage."

Most waiver teachers enjoy themselves so much that they stay on after their probationary year, even if they do not get full-time work.

"I came here telling myself that if it didn't work out, it was only for a year," says Gillian. "By Christmas I knew I wanted to stay. I can see myself here for a good few years."

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