Their Highland of dreams?

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Sue Clapham meets a headteacher couple set to swap suburban

Aberdeen for the wilds of Wester Ross

IT WOULD be hard to imagine anyone less likely to be seduced by romantic notions of a rural idyll than Lorna McPhail. When later this month, she and her husband, Stewart, move from the suburbs of Aberdeen to take up posts at the independent secondary school on the remote Scoraig peninsula in Wester Ross, it will be all about teaching rather than the good life.

"Just because we're moving up there doesn't mean we're suddenly going to start keeping chickens," Mrs McPhail says. "It was the job that attracted us, not the location."

Scoraig, once a crofting village but more recently repopulated by people seeking an alternative lifestyle, has two schools, a council primary and the independent S1-S4 secondary run by the Scoraig Teaching Group, which receives a pound;36,000 grant from Highland Council for its eight pupils.

The McPhails, who met at school in Stirling and qualified as geography teachers in 1994 after graduating from Aberdeen University, will be joint headteachers. "I see it as a real opportunity to develop ourselves professionally and to do more of the kind of teaching we enjoy," Mrs McPhail says. They are looking forward to working with small groups of pupils, and without some of the constraints that are necessarily part of a larger school.

"I've been working as a support for learning teacher recently," Mrs McPhail says. "I love the small groups and the closer relationships you can establish with the children. But I think there are also quite a lot of children in the mainstream who would benefit from the same thing."

In no sense are the couple - who have two sons, Donald, aged four, and Alastair, two - disaffected teachers opting out of the system to follow a personal agenda. "I'm incredibly enthusiastic abut teaching and I'm hoping that working on Scoraig will give us the chance to combine all the positive aspects. What we will be aiming to do, as we would in any school, is to provide a well- rounded education in as professional a way as possible. Given the conditions, we should be able to cover the curriculum and have the time - and autonomy - to follow up things of a particular interest to the children as well."

One unusual aspect is the input of the rest of the community, some of whom, although not trained teachers, pass on their specialist skills to the pupils. Might that not be a recipe for potential conflict?

"I don't see why it should be," Mrs McPhail replies. "The school is run very much on a co-operative basis, and there is a good cross-section of people there.

"Part of our remit will be to put our professional expertise into the development of courses and material, but there is plenty of room within that for parents to be very hands-on."

Among the almost 100 residents are a potter, a violin-maker, a traditional boat-builder and a wind-turbine designer.

Some grow their own food, some run businesses from home, some are highly qualified, but all will be keenly interested in the new headteachers. "Aside from the geographical isolation, there is no sense of insularity. Everyone knows that the children must move on to complete their education and there is a definite emphasis on acquiring the cognitive and practical skills necessary for earning a living."

The McPhails expect their new jobs - "a long-term commitment" - will be more demanding, even if "we shan't miss the traffic jams". The Scoraig children are all in S1 and S2 and "we want to see them through to Standard grade as well as the others that are coming up through the primary school".

Which won't leave much time for keeping chickens.

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