Small but not perfect

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Catching up on back numbers of The TES Scotland, I came across an opinion piece by Mike Russell on the value of rural schools (November 4). However, what stunned me was that he mentioned me by name 10 times, and as "she"

countless other times.

The gist of Mike's argument was that, as I had been reported for observing the sense in rationalising schools in urban situations to reflect falling school numbers, I had given the green light to ministers and council officials to close small rural schools.

Those, like Mike Russell, who defend small schools equate smallness with virtue, when the truth of the matter is that some small schools, like some large schools, are excellent whereas some in both categories are bad. Most of the phone calls we receive about a break-down in relationships between parents and teachers come from small rural schools.

There are times when small rural schools are the only option. When Highland Council re-opened Altnaharra Primary for a mere three pupils, that was a good move because the alternative for the youngsters was a 50 mile journey.

In contrast, some apparently "rural schools" are actually on the outskirts of towns where they are relatively close to larger, more urban alternatives.

Small schools appeal to some parents because they feel that school is not so different from home and their children are protected from mixing with other undesirable children. On the other hand, I recently met a young woman from a remote part of Argyll who told me that, every time she saw that a rural school was being closed, she let out a cheer. She was local to the area, not an incomer, and went to the local small rural two-teacher primary school. One teacher was good, the other was poor but she was stuck with her for three years.

This is not an isolated experience, as I know from my own family. She also observed that the school was dominated by one particular local family, both siblings and cousins, who made life miserable for all the other children (again a situation of which I have personal experience). And finally, she talked about the lack of resources in the school as a result of its small size. Those adults who look at "a lovely wee school" should stop to think carefully about the children's experience.

It is not schools that attract people to remote areas, but jobs. It was noteworthy that one of the benefits to the local community highlighted as arising from the retention of the airbases in Moray was that this put children in the local schools.

As for Mike's assertion that my claims of population decline are a figment of my fevered imagination, I hope he noticed the headline the following week that schools were set to lose 100,000 pupils - the equivalent of one in seven of current pupils.

Small schools should not be viewed through rose-coloured glasses. When they are necessary, they should be fully supported and resourced. However, they are not always the best way to provide for children's education.

Judith Gillespie

Scottish Parent Teacher Council

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