Expat boarders are last hope for Hebrides school

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The Independent Online

Its name might not carry the cachet of an Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Downside or Fettes, but Tiree High School on the remote Hebridean island nevertheless aims to join Britain's premier division of boarding schools.

Its name might not carry the cachet of an Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Downside or Fettes, but Tiree High School on the remote Hebridean island nevertheless aims to join Britain's premier division of boarding schools.

To save the school from possible closure, the community council on the 10-mile-long island of Tiree has decided to offer boarding places to children of expatriate Britons.

"Why send your children to Gordonstoun when you can send them here for a better education and a better environment at much less cost?" said Don Neil Kennedy, Tiree's community councillor in charge of planning, who first proposed the idea.

In terms of educational achievement, Tiree High rates seventh in the league table of Scotland's schools. But it has only 50 pupils, and in this cost-conscious age its continued existence comes under annual scrutiny by the mainland-based Argyll and Bute Education Department.

"We fret constantly that the school's future will be endangered if the numbers fall," said Mr Kennedy, who spent many years working as a surveyor in Nigeria before he returned to Tiree. "It's vitally important that we do not lose the school. If we do lose it, we will also lose young families from the island, and with a total population of only 750 we can't afford that."

Under the Kennedy plan, children of expatriates working for multinational companies such as Shell, BP or Wimpey can send their children to Tiree High and they will board at reasonable rates with island families in traditional white Tiree houses with walls nine feet thick. Fees, to help reduce the costs of keeping the school open, will be no more than £600 a year, compared with £10,000 to £20,000 for prestige public schools. Local pupils, who obviously don't need to board, will be educated for free.

But will it run? Can a remote island in the Atlantic really be the best place to receive a good education?

Mr Kennedy believes it can. "Academically, we're one of the best performing schools in Scotland. We have a pupil/teacher ratio of five to one. With, say, 20 to 30 boarders the ratio would still be no more than eight to one. There are computers in every classroom, some fine sports fields and our music teachers are especially dynamic.

"We're one of the safest places in Britain. There's no crime. There are long, empty white beaches, from where we host a world championship surfing event every October." There's also plenty of horse riding plus a golf course, although players have to keep a sharp eye open for ravens which have developed a habit of stealing balls. Local fishermen catch lobsters longer than your forearm.

There is no urban noise but the wind can whistle wildly, and the "crek, crek" calls of Britain's rarest bird, the corncrake, keeps the crofting community awake through the summer nights. Numbers of the globally-endangered bird, virtually extinct on the British mainland, have risen to more than 250 under a land management programme introduced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Because its highest point is only 462 feet, Tiree is known in Gaelic as Tir An Eorna, The Land Below The Waves. Its flatness accounts for its sunniness. Saturated air from the Atlantic simply passes over before hitting mountains on the mainland and dropping its load there.

Don Kennedy, whose father was a Tiree sea captain, hopes the first boarders will arrive at the start of the 2001-02 school year. "If it works here, we see no reason why it couldn't work on Islay, Skye and other islands which want to keep their schools open," he said.

Tiree Community Council is initially relying on the Oxford-based Hebridean Trust, a charity dedicated to securing the future of island communities, to promote the school's cause among companies with big expatriate workforces. "It's a gem of an idea," said Ian Rees, executive director-designate of the Trust. "It's in its very early stages, but we're working on it. It's important to maintain a high school on Tiree, and therefore we'll give it all the support we can."

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