Rural excellence rewarded

12th January 1996 at 00:00
The day after Valerie Barrie's award of an MBE appeared in the newspapers she was in the loft of her school, Ettrick primary, which had a burst pipe. In a two-teacher rural community the headteacher acts as janitor when necessary, although Mrs Barrie was able to call on help from her grown-up son.

The school is above a snow line in the Ettrick valley, 11 miles on from Ettrick Bridge. Mrs Barrie and her hill-farmer husband live a farther four miles into solitude. The school was saved from closure in the 1970s because of that snow line. It then had only seven pupils - there are now 24 - but the view was that the pupils would lose too many days if they had to travel in winter down the valley to Kirkhope, the next school.

Mrs Barrie expresses the conventional surprise at being singled out for an honour. In one sense others might share her puzzlements. Why should she be chosen from among the 2,000 primary heads in Scotland? But it takes only a few minutes conversation with her about commitment and candour to realise that she is a fitting representative if long service to education away from the spotlight is to be recognised.

Now in her mid-fifties she has been head of Ettrick for 16 years. She has always worked in the Borders, although she hails from Wigtownshire whence she went to St Andrews University to take a degree in English and French. Possessor of a dual qualification from Moray House in secondary as well as primary teaching, she held posts at Galashiels and Selkirk high schools.

For 10 years, while she raised three small children, she was "happy to be a farmer's wife". Then she took the headship of her local primary, where she teaches the top three years, with her one colleague responsible for the younger children.

The catchment community is stable in numbers but the population has changed. A large number of houses are occupied by incomers, some of whom had lost jobs in the recession and now run businesses from home, beneficiaries of the new technologies. Mrs Barrie reckons that three-quarters of her families are English-spoken.

She frankly points to differences in attitude between the caring and sharing ethos she seeks to create at school and materialistic, self-centred values prevalent at home. If tensions result, these do not translate into open dissatisfaction: there is a struggle to keep a school board manned because parents say that the school is doing well and why have formal trappings?

In the mid-1980s the HMI produced a glowing report about Ettrick. Mrs Barrie was already practising differentiation and implementing many of the ideas later to find their place in the 5-14 programme. Although she was involved in national development of some of the guidelines, she is candid about her "feet of clay" now. There is too much bureaucratic recording, which undermines satisfaction and takes time away from the pupils.

A head who has to wrestle with the school development plan and devolved management as well as teaching full-time might express disillusion. Not Mrs Barrie. Paying tribute to Borders Region for its help and tolerance, she comments that the job is constantly changing and remains intellectually stimulating. She itches to get back after the holidays and retains an ambition to teach in Africa. Her husband would rather she stays in their Borders valley.

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