Opinion piece by Fiona Grahame
This article was first published in the October issue of iScot Magazine.
“What matters most is not the facts but how you discover and think about them: education in the true sense, very different from today’s assessment-mad exam culture” (Dawkins, 2004, p70)
Orkney has one of the largest primary schools in Scotland but also some of the smallest and many of these are on our islands.
The cost of educating a child in a small island school is expensive ranking alongside our most exclusive private schools. The small school requires all the facilities and structures that a larger school has such as: Head Teacher, Head Teacher relief, janitor, dinner staff, visiting specialists. Whatever a large school provides, the small school must also provide. So it’s not cheap in fact the cost is such that many local authorities have dispensed with having a single Head Teacher and now share one across several schools. Whether or not that is a less expensive management model is debatable.
We even have islands where parents have chosen to send their children ‘o’er the sea’ to attend a larger school as they do not consider the education received where all the pupils are in one class as a choice they would like for their children.
Delivering a quality educational experience in a small island school is challenging. A teaching Head will also have administration and managerial issues to deal with, staffing and parental concerns to address. Being the focal point of an island’s community will add additional pressures. But what are the advantages to a child in such a school?
Every class, no matter what the size, includes a wide range of pupils. In the small island school age is added into the mix. All the island’s children are in the one room. But, as in every good school across the nation, teachers adapt to the learning needs of individual pupils.
And just as in a classroom in a large school where pupils work in groups so too in the small school this happens with the advantage that older pupils see their role in assisting the younger ones. Helping one another and team work is all part of the life of a small school.
Now many urban schools consider themselves part of the community even incorporating it into their name. For islands the school is central to the community. Without the school an island will die: it may take some time but die it will. Life on a small island is for all inhabitants an intense experience where everyone knows your business and what they don’t know they will make up. This can feel personally restricting. The closeness of the community can also be, and is, a powerful supportive force for a creative and energising curriculum experience for pupils.
The fundamental mistake so many politicians and commentators make towards our schools is in thinking that all learning takes place within the classroom. For small schools the unhindered use of the outdoors gives those pupils an educational experience that many other children will never have. This does not mean that we should all adopt “the Julie Andrews curriculum where we teach “a few of my favorite things”!” (Andy Hargreaves). The natural environment, the outdoor classroom, unfettered with walls, has the space where learning does not just take place, but where it can also grow.
Nothing except extreme weather conditions can prevent the teacher in a small island school from utilising to its full imaginative scope the wonders that the outdoors presents. Exploring what is outside the classroom is more meaningful to children than what goes on inside it. Acquiring the literacy and numeracy skills to communicate and record what the learner has discovered is of course essential but if you ask any adult about what their fondest memories of school are it will most likely involve a trip out of school.
Dawkins,R. (2004) ‘The Joy of Living Dangerously: Sanderson of Oundle’ in Menon,L. ed A Devil’s Chaplain – Selected Essays, London Phoenix
Hargreaves,A.& Fink,D (2006) Sustainable Leadership Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.