One head is better than three
Closure of local schools is a big worry for remote communities around Scotland, so anything that can breathe new life into small rural schools, such as the novel management strategy being piloted on Raasay and Skye, merits attention.
Norma Young, the former teaching head at Staffin Primary in Skye, has exchanged all classroom commitments for the extra responsibility of being headteacher at three primary schools: Staffin, Raasay and Carbost.
It is a shared management model that seems to be working well, despite the communities that the schools serve being geographically separated and distinct in character. Staffin and Carbost are an hour's drive apart on Skye, while Raasay is accessible only by ferry.
If one person is to be headteacher at three schools, certain things are indispensable, not least an organised mind, a mobile telephone and a reliable car.
"In a rural location you get used to travelling," says Ms Young. "To buy groceries, I drive 16 miles from Staffin to Portree. For clothes, it's two-and-a-half hours to Inverness. Living on an island gives you a different concept of distance.
"On the ferry to Raasay I get on with my paperwork and when driving I reflect on what I did at one school and what I'm going to do at the next one. It is not wasted time."
Staffin is a clifftop community of white crofts scattered around green, treeless fields overlooked by the craggy mountains of the Trotternish ridge. The little school has a nursery, two Gaelic medium classes and one English medium class, the last having been Ms Young's teaching responsibility for four days a week before she became a peripatetic head.
Now Marion Wright, who recently qualified and previously was part-time, is the full-time class teacher.
"I wouldn't say I feel any more exposed now that Norma is not in school all the time," she says. "She draws up a timetable for us, so we always know where to get in touch with her.
"Dealing with parents hasn't been a problem. I take the kids to the bus at the end of the day, so I see a lot of them anyway and can handle questions as they arise. Otherwise, they make an appointment to see the headteacher, just like anywhere else."
Within a few weeks of being appointed head of the three schools, Ms Young realised there were two important benefits. "First, the children I used to teach were now getting a good education uninterrupted by the demands of management," she says. "Suppose you were doing interactive maths, and the whole thing was rolling and going really well, and everybody was feeding into it. Then the phone rings. You lift it up and say you can't talk right now, please call back at three. You turn back to the class and the light has gone out. You just have to move on. That doesn't happen any more."
Ms Young also has direct experience of the management benefits. "I can now spend two or three days in succession working on management tasks without having to stop and do teaching before coming back and trying to pick up the train of thought. As a result, we are now achieving much more in terms of development."
Lawrence Young, area education manager for Skye and Lochalsh, confirms that comments about the increased pace of development have featured in feedback from teaching staff at the schools. "I'm not quite sure if it's praise or criticism," he says with a smile.
The Skye and Raasay shared management model is being piloted for one year.
The authority hopes to carry on, depending on the outcome of consultations with staff and parents, for at least another year. Given a favourable evaluation, a further 120 small schools around Highland are candidates for shared management, although the authority insists the model will not be imposed against local wishes.
Some resistance might be expected, in particular from parents wedded to the notion of one head to one school, although this has not been the experience in Skye and Raasay.
"We have had no letters, no phone calls of complaint," says Mr Young. "But it would not be right to conclude from this that people have no concerns.
"I'm fairly sure there will be parents out there who would like to see one head in every school. That's why we're going to carry out a parental survey. There is no point in having it too early though because you wouldn't be giving the pilot a chance. Our plan is to consult staff, pupils and parents before the summer holidays."
On the drive south from Staffin to Carbost, Mr Young points out the small islands of Rona and Raasay across the dark water, with the mountains of Wester Ross rising beyond them.
On the other side of the narrow road, the complex tangle of cliffs and pinnacles below The Storr, the highest peak on the ridge, briefly catches the sun.
"There is a strange atmosphere up there and at several other places around Skye," says Mr Young. "Not spooky exactly I ancient. They have a very ancient feel about them."
He talks about crofting and crofters, the economic necessity of a second income and the demography of the islands. "Skye has a net gain in population, but it's not young people," he says. "All around the Highlands, persuading our young people to stay is not easy. That's one reason this shared management model is potentially very important. It could help us keep schools open that might otherwise close."
Carbost Primary, a two-teacher school with a nursery, set among young broadleaf trees on a gentle hillside overlooking Loch Harport, is the most recent of Ms Young's acquisitions. Despite living elsewhere and working at the school for less than a year, she is familiar with the staff and the community and effortlessly assumes the mantle of Carbost head on entering the grounds.
"The former headteacher and I were good friends and worked together on several projects, so the people here knew me well before I became head," she says.
Gillian Stuart, an experienced teacher responsible for the composite P1-P4 class, believes this partly explains why the new arrangement is working well. "Good communications are vital," she says. "Norma is accessible and responds quickly to whatever you say to her. I can imagine with people who didn't get on so well, there might be problems - if there was a teacher in the school, say, who wanted the headteacher job but didn't get it.
"A lot of the routine of handling phone calls is now done by our classroom assistant. And for us teachers, Norma is just a phone call away.
"I suppose it does feel a little different being the senior person in the school for a good part of the week. But in most two-teacher schools you are either headteacher or class teacher, whereas I have a bit more responsibility now, which will help if I want to move into management."
Perhaps surprisingly, Ms Young feels that being headteacher at three schools is less onerous than trying to balance the competing demands on the time and attention of a teaching head.
"I was trying to do two jobs," she says. "Now I'm doing one job with many facets.
"I was always having to go back to school and working long hours because one day a week just wasn't enough for all the management tasks a headteacher has these days. I am not as stressed now. Even the dog used to hide under the table when I came home. Now she greets me at the door."
For Highland Council, shared management is one possible solution to a problem that has grown steadily worse in recent years as the job of headteacher has changed.
"Twenty years ago I was head of a two-teacher school," says Mr Young. "The job was basically a leading teacher with a bit of administration. It required a good teacher with an interest in curriculum development, who was knowledgeable about methodology, could produce interesting work for youngsters, and would set a good example.
"There was no formal quality assurance, no school development planning and very little monitoring of other staff. A whole range of management functions did not exist. It is a completely different job now.
"My view is that it has reached a stage where it'll be very difficult to recruit people. Do we really want to go on asking someone in a small school to juggle the demands of two very big jobs, teaching and headteaching?"
Mr Young believes that tinkering at the edges will not solve the problem.
"I'm not saying ours is the only possible model. But we do need to free up headteachers to be educational managers without all the complexities of also being a class teacher," he says.
"The model we have now seems sound. But to extend it we would need to work out in detail how to cluster each set of schools together. Every school is different."
The benefits of separating teaching and management functions were noticed early in the pilot. Other lessons emerged as time went on.
* Staff development: bringing staff at all three schools together for training sessions is highly beneficial and reduces professional isolation.
* Pupil collaboration: there are great benefits to letting pupils at the three schools work together. "If you only have one P7 pupil, say, it can be difficult if you are talking about sex or drugs education," says Norma Young. "They may be too embarrassed to ask questions."
* Meeting visiting and non-teaching staff: initial thoughts that the headteacher might work at a particular school on the same day each week were modified to ensure all visiting staff, classroom assistants and nursery staff were met regularly. The head's rota is now planned for the entire term.
* Dealing with enquiries: when the headteacher is not in school, a non-teaching adult is always available. "There is no point in just transferring disruption from the head to the classroom teacher," says Lawrence Young.
* Principal teacher: consideration has been given to the creation of a new post of principal teacher for the cluster of schools, to deputise for the headteacher and combine some management and teaching duties.
* Cluster teachers: the reduction in class contact time resulting from the national teachers' agreement will be very difficult to implement in small rural schools. One possibility is to employ an extra teacher for the cluster.l Funding: savings made on two headteacher's salaries have been used in the pilot partly on additional support staff, partly to enhance Norma Young's salary. In the long term, additional payments for class teachers would be needed.
* Resources: economies of scale arise in purchasing, maintenance and staff development. Expensive items can be shared among the schools on a planned basis.
* Identity: the aim would be to combine the schools under one name, while retaining the unique identities of the separate campuses.