United we stand

27th July 2007 at 01:00
In our continuing series on small schools, Henry Hepburn visits Skerries which has twice faced the threat of closure and islanders are again preparing themselves to take on Shetland Islands Council to stop it forcing the sole secondary department pupil to be sent away for his education

skerries secondary is like Hogwarts and St Trinian's it has captured people's imaginations, yet it doesn't actually exist.

The school, ostensibly in the remote archipelago of Out Skerries, has been at the centre of controversy because the education of its sole pupil reportedly costs Shetland Islands Council pound;135,000 a year. This, calculated incredulous daily newspapers, was five times the fee for Eton.

That figure has been seized on without an appreciation of how education works in Out Skerries (known simply as "Skerries"). The truth is that the tiny isles, only two of which are inhabited, have a community education centre willing to help everyone from infants to adult learners.

It includes a secondary department up to S4, which will have just one pupil after the summer (for S5-6, pupils transfer to Anderson Hig in Lerwick on Mainland Shetland). But there is no standalone secondary, as reports have implied. There is only Skerries School, with six full-time pupils from nursery to secondary, where education is defined by a flexible approach to learning that is very much in vogue.

It all takes place in a remarkable setting. The flat-roofed 1960s concrete school squats atop a little hill; below, a sheltered bay squeezes behind two grassy headlands resembling giant pincers. In the gap between, frothing waves can be seen crashing against perilous rocks, echoing long-distant storms that propelled the Dutch East India ships "Kennemerland" and "Liefde" to their doom in 1664 and 1711.

A series of attempts to close the Skerries secondary department have been scuttled but, unlike the Dutch ships' unfortunate crew, the powers-that-be can keep coming back for another try. For the third time in five years, Shetland Islands Council is building a case for closure; a decision could be reached early in the new school year.

Yet what it would be closing is, far from being an educational anachronism, the embodiment of A Curriculum for Excellence. At Skerries, the boundaries between nursery and primary, primary and secondary, are blurred, the "transition" problem that so vexes educationists is a non-issue, and curricular flexibility prevails.

"I am very, very enthusiastic about A Curriculum for Excel-lence," says Lawrence Inkster, the school's primary teacher, who also teaches secondary English and modern studies. "We're already there we've done it for years. Everything revolves around the need of the individual kids."

This is largely down to the quietly impressive Sheilagh Smith, the school's head and secondary teacher for the past 15 years. Mrs Smith, who carries the slightly distracted air of the scholarly mind and winds down with Bach and bridge, has one fundamental aim for the school: to provide the education the community desires.

So she is working out how to offer nautical studies to S2 pupil John Anderson, who hopes to emulate his father and become a fisherman; she has also arranged for three women in their early 20s to sit Higher and Advanced Higher exams. To offer the most subjects possible, she is constantly furthering her own knowledge. Building on a first degree in history, gained in London, she got a maths degree from the Open University previously working as a maths teacher at Islay High and is now studying science with the OU.

The school also calls on teachers of music and craft and design, who make the 10-minute flight from Shetland's mainland one day a week; and expertise on Skerries locals teach home economics, art and knitting.

The results are impressive. So said HMIE, which, in a glowing report in 2005, observed that there were high expectations of children in exams, with "almost all" pupils leaving with eight Standard grades and moving on to Highers.

Denise Anderson, mother of John, says: "The council know they haven't got a leg to stand on in terms of his education."

This is why islanders believe attention has shifted to money. Recent headlines identified John as the "most expensive schoolboy in Britain" after a council document came up with the figure of pound;135,297. Yet the islanders believe it would cost more to send John to Anderson High. Costs in the council calculations, they argue, apply to the whole school, not just the secondary department except for the pound;8,500 allocated annually for the craft and design teacher. The school estimates that it will cost about pound;12,000 in travel and accommodation to send John away to Anderson High meaning a net loss.

"You're not shutting anything down," says Mrs Smith. "The only thing that would change is John would be away from his family."

The islanders believe a third argument will be harder to overcome: that as the only secondary pupil, John is missing out on crucial social development.

Not that they lack a vigorous response. They can point to inspectors' observations on how well pupils of different ages worked together. John, for example, learns guitar in music lessons with his sister, Sharyn, 11.

He and his father often take the islands' visitors on boat trips, during which he impresses with his articulacy and knowledge. (Skerries, with its Norse roots, is popular with Scandinavian yachts, while Japanese and German business delegates come to see the organic salmon co-operative that employs many of the 75 islanders).

John benefits, too, from the school's conspicuous internationalism, including links with several foreign schools and longstanding sponsorship of a South African girl.

He is also in a school whose boundaries with the community are almost invisible no one bats an eyelid when his mother walks in unannounced to see how things are going. He learns not only through standard schoolwork, but by interacting with the world outside; the entire community is closely involved in the school, whether working as voluntary teachers or forming the electorate in a mock election.

Such is the mutual dependence of school and community that the loss of the secondary department could see the slow death of Skerries. While other islands have seen their populations dwindle nearby Fetlar may soon have no children to attend its primary school the secondary department has held Skerries together.

As recently as 1999, there were nine secondary pupils. The omnipresent shadow of closure, however, means young families with links to Skerries have either left or been put off coming back because they do not want to uproot to Shetland Mainland when their children reach secondary age or send them away as boarders aged 12, which would require an hour-and-a-half boat trip twice a week.

The Anderson family John has five siblings aged two to 11 is resolutely staying put, but it is only thanks to a remarkable young woman that Skerries will not have a one-family school next year.

Claire Flaherty, 24, came to Skerries in January with daughters Chloe, 3, who will go into nursery after summer, and Tiffany, 1. Her twin sister, Paula, arrived three years ago after their stepfather retired to the islands. She had lived on the same run-down Bristol estate all her life, where drug users' needles were strewn on the pavement and she dared not take her eyes off her children for a second.

"That's not the way it should be," says Claire. "They don't lock their doors here. Everyone works as a team it's such a united place."

There is a section of coastline on Skerries that is little more than oozing black mud. There, the islanders are in the middle of a fascinating experiment, where thousands of scallop shells are to be laid in the hope of creating a beautiful white beach. But the shells will not break down into fine sand until long after the current inhabitants have gone; this will be their gift for future generations.

The work that goes into providing secondary education in Skerries is another way to lay a future for those not yet born, and an even more impressive commitment to life on this apparently inhospitable North Sea outpost. Its loss would be a sad victory for bureaucratic persistence over educational idealism.

A short history

Skerries School helped form the welcoming character that gave rise to the place's nickname, "the friendly isles". The first permanent teacher a role combined with minister until 1989 was a man named Peterson, who started in 1850. The Reverend Peterson "lived not to accumulate money but to perform good deeds", according to a book on remote Scottish islands by Swede Roland Svensson, and his enlightened attitude percolated down the generations.

Education persisted despite the indifference of remote administrators. On one occasion a peripatetic post was created that also covered the islands of Foula and Fair Isle, which even today are two and three hours from the mainland; the appointee never made it to Skerries. Yet the school prospered, receiving a favourable inspectors' report in 1955. Inspectors did not see fit to visit again until 1996.

There is always thought to have been secondary education at the school, but it was only in 1956 that it was officially recognised by the Scottish Office. In the mid-1960s, in a shake-up of Shetland education, island communities were asked whether they wished their schools to continue providing secondary education; only Skerries did.

In September 2002, a pound;750,000 extension to the school, including a science lab, music room and craft and design room with equipment that could only be used by secondary pupils was officially opened. Two months later, a council review of education recommended that the secondary department close. The review was thrown out. In 2004, the council again recommended closure; again, the review stalled.

The school is under threat once more. The people of Skerries want assurances that, if closure is averted again, the future of the secondary department will be guaranteed for at least 10 years.

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