Survival of the smallest

Residents of a remote island off the coast of Scotland have won a fight to keep open a school with two pupils. Is this a victory worth having? Claire Smith reports

The North Sea is unpredictable. But residents of Out Skerries, the easternmost isle of the Shetland Islands, think there's more consistency in those waters than in the bureaucracy of the local education authority, which invested £750,000 in upgrading its secondary school, only to recommend three months later that it be closed down.

Skerries School is Britain's smallest secondary, with just two pupils, the Hay brothers Christopher, 14, and Bryan,13. Its head teacher, Sheila Smith, teaches six subjects, and three peripatetic teachers are flown in every Thursday to teach music, languages and craft design and technology. Home economics and art are taught by local unpaid volunteers, including the boys' mother, Brenda, who shows them how to handle a rolling pin. "I teach them cooking on a Friday, and we have whatever they've made for our tea," she smiles.

From the outside, the school does not inspire. Built in the form-follows-function era of the Sixties, the grey, squat structure sits unassumingly alongside a bay with an old Norse name, Bod Voe. It's the view from the classroom window that will rival any Norman Foster creation: the moody theatre of the North Sea, venting its power against two rocky outcrops, between which the local fishing boats make their daily exits and entrances.

The recommendation for closure first came in November 2002 after a "best value review" found that the council would save £94,000 a year if the boys were educated at Anderson High School in the mainland town of Lerwick. This figure was later disputed by the school board, which calculated the saving at closer to £20,000, because the secondary shares a building and therefore running costs with the primary school - which was not earmarked for closure.

Controversial from the start, the proposal found itself on the back burner in the lead up to the May 2003 local elections, rearing its head again in the summer of 2004. The plan meant that the boys would leave the island by ferry every Sunday evening, making the notoriously choppy 90-minute journey across to the mainland, and return on Friday night - weather permitting, that is. During winter, there are many days when neither the ferry nor the eight-seater plane can land on the island. This point was made only too clearly when bad weather made it impossible for many of the islanders to travel to a protest rally against the school's closure held at Lerwick's town hall.

"How could they expect these wee boys to go away from their families to school on the mainland, with the chances that some weekends the weather would be too bad for them to come home at all?" asks Denise Anderson, the chairman of the school board and the mother of the four children in the primary school.

But it wasn't just the fickle temperament of the North Sea and maternal fretting that fuelled the protest. It was the will to survive of a community that was already under threat. The salmon factory that the islanders owned as a co-operative went into receivership in January 2004, leaving 20 people unemployed. "It felt like they wanted to shut down the island," says Brenda Hay. "If they hadn't spent £750,000 on improvements, they could have argued that the school was going to cost a lot of money to get it up to standard. But we had a new science lab, music room and CDT room, and now they wanted to take the boys away. How could they think that was best value?"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, getting to the truth takes us through a confusing maze of budgets, best intentions and bungling bureaucracy. "The decision to spend the money on upgrading the school was made a number of years ago," explains Bill Manson, the council's education spokesman, matter-of-factly. "As long as the school is open, it's the education authority's responsibility to keep it in workable condition. Skerries' closure was under discussion for a long time. But only the Council has the power to close down a school. The education authority could never know what they would decide."

What the education authority's £750,000 investment did was to generate local pride in the school. "It's an excellent school. The resources are so good. The exam results we get are fantastic. Why did they want to stop that?" demands Alice Arthur, the local fire chief and mother of a former pupil.

The answer seems to be less about money and more about quality of education. In 2000, there were nine pupils in the school. Not only did this mean that the costs per pupil were lower, but that they were able to engage in classroom debates, something that isn't possible now. "Peer interaction is a substantial part of secondary education," insists Manson. "In Skerries, you have one boy in the group focusing on one subject." Manson also points out that the range of subjects taught on the island is limited, because it is difficult to get teachers to fly in.

Anderson is unfazed by these criticisms. If a debate is needed, adults from the island are called in to participate, she says. As for variety in education, the school has the technology to accept remote teaching, so teachers can conduct lessons via a live link-up from the mainland. Valerie Arthur, a former pupil at the school, got a 1 for French in her standard grades being taught by this method. And, says Anderson, there are some classes that are only possible on Skerries, like the one that happens at 3.30 every afternoon from March through to September, when the boys head down to their respective boats and go fishing for velvet crabs and lobsters.

When I visit, it's a blustery Thursday afternoon in winter, and the boys agree to show me the creels where they keep their lobsters until the market price goes up. At the water's edge they fish out the creatures which, to my surprise, are blue. I've only ever seen orange ones, I tell Christopher. He politely informs me that they only turn that colour when they're cooked. Oh.

"We can get about £25 for a lobster," explains Christopher. "And nearly £50 for a week's crabs." Not that there's much on the island to spend it on. There's two small general stores, but no restaurants, pubs, doctors or, for that matter, street lights.

"If they had to go to the mainland, they wouldn't have learnt the local skills," insists Anderson. "They wouldn't be able to mend the nets, and do fencing. There's so many skills that they would have lost."

So what did the boys think of the plan to close down their school? "I thought it was madness," says Bryan, who's not quite sure what he wants to do when he grows up, though he knows if he wants to find a girlfriend, he's going to "have to go and fin' one".

"They think it's just stupid to have a secondary with only two pupils," says Christopher, "but I think it's a lot better because we get more attention and we get better marks. When I'm older I want to join the merchant navy. When I'm 16, I'll go to Anderson for my highers, and then go to nautical college in Glasgow."

But Manson is hesitant. "Tell me how many opportunities they've had to see other professions they might want to take up. We're not a remote third-world island, we're part of Britain. They don't necessarily want to be locked into the way of their father or grandfather. It's up to the education department to give them a choice."

Mervyn Benford, chairman of the National Association of Small Schools, thinks that it's this attitude that might be shortsighted, not that of the school's supporters, pointing to the fact that education works best when it is rooted in the real world. "These boys are at an advantage. They can learn science and geography from the distinct nature of their environment." He also points out that some of our most important life lessons come from our family. "Those relationships between young and old are the essence of social learning. In this tight-knit community, these boys have access to a unique kind of education, which most children don't have."

Happily for the residents of Skerries, in December 2004 the Shetland Island Council voted 12 to 10 to keep Skerries School open. "The council listened to the community argument and decided that it was stronger than the educational one," states Manson.

But is this really a victory for community over "education"? Or is the sore loser here really bureaucracy? Despite the fact that the school is now open and it's business as usual, the head teacher Sheila Smith was forbidden by the local education authority to even talk to The Independent.

"We're here for the business of education and the head teacher doesn't need to be distracted from that business by showing reporters around," said a spokesperson from the education authority. Perhaps not. After all, she's probably wasted enough time being distracted by someone trying to close her school down.

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