Orkney? You must be kidding

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Go North, middle-aged man. Gerald Haigh talks to one head who followed his dreams... and never looked back

Ray Richards gave up a comfortable primary headship in Warwickshire and moved to the Orkney Islands to raise kids. Baby goats, that is.

The planned goat farm never happened, but, as career paths go, his journey from head of Temple Grafton Primary near Stratford-upon-Avon to adviser for information technology in Orkney schools is still an unusual one.

In 1988, at 47, he had been a headteacher for 13 years. "I'd enjoyed it all except the last couple of years. The new government reforms started; there was more paperwork and less opportunity for teaching. So I decided I'd had enough and, in a sort of dream world, I resigned."

The dream was one we all have from time to time of leaving everything behind and starting again in a new, quieter, less demanding and more friendly place. So it was that, with his wife and three daughters, who were all in the early stages of secondary schooling, he moved to a house near Stromness that he had seen advertised in Exchange Mart. "It had 25 acres, and we bought if for half what we got for our house in Warwickshire."

The aim was to have at least a measure of self-sufficiency. "I had looked into goat farming", is how he puts it. This, though, never took off. "Looking back, I suppose there were two problems: I don't have the self-discipline to do something like that, and neither am I sure I would have been able to accept the much lower standard of living."

Like many teachers who depart the profession, he was aware of the safety net that comes from holding the teaching qualification. Once his experience and qualifications had been accepted by the Scottish authorities, he looked for supply work. Then another avenue opened up. In 1988, Parliament decreed that Scottish schools, which until then had not had lay governing bodies, should have elected school boards, the elections for which were to be handled by the local councils. Richards, with up-to-date understanding of how governing bodies worked, applied for and got the job of administrative officer for school boards with the Orkney Islands Council. "I visited virtually all the schools with a roadshow and explained the system to them."

He went on to run the elections, collecting a database of eligible parents. "This involved playing with the computer. I had not had much experience apart from with the old BBC Master. Now I had time to learn, and I picked up a fair amount of knowledge as I went along."

For the first year he attended every school board meeting across Orkney, but as time went on the school board liaison work became less urgent and his increasing knowledge of computers led to the information technology advisory work taking over. There are 25 schools in Orkney, including two secondary schools. Eleven of these are on outlying islands, served sometimes by ferry, sometimes by an eight-seat Islander aircraft using grass airstrips.

Professionally, Mr Richards regards himself as fortunate. "I could not possibly have envisaged having a job like this had I stayed down south. I achieved my ambitions when I became a head. Now I just enjoy my job, and I've always said when I stop enjoying it I'll leave."

At the personal level, though, the road has been rocky. Mrs Richards went back to England two years ago. "She never really settled," he admits. His three children did settle. and are now in higher education on the mainland "Home is Orkney to them."

But life in Orkney does not suit everyone. "The people who come unstuck are those who move from the city and expect to find city facilities such as supermarkets," says Mr Richards. "One candidate for a teaching job on an outer island thought her husband could commute to Kirkwall every day, which is simply not possible. " The weather must also be taken into account. "The long dark winters can be depressing, but you have to accept they are part of living here." The reward comes with long hours of summer daylight - in June the night consists of only an hour or two of twilight around midnight. "Driving past the bay on a sunny morning I feel privileged. I don't have to worry about traffic jams - in the rush hour, both vehicles go about the same speed!

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