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NICKY MARR: Equal education opportunities too much to ask for?

By Nicky Marr

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Nicky Marr
Nicky Marr

To be honest I’m relieved that our daughters are through school. Feel free to accuse me of being selfish, and to point out that one day I may have grandchildren to consider, but for now I’m glad that our family isn’t relying on the state for education. Because frankly, and despite heroic efforts from teachers, parents, and support staff, there simply isn’t enough money to pay for everything that is needed.

Buildings are crumbling. Park Primary in Invergordon burnt down and needs to be rebuilt, and Beauly Primary, St Clements in Dingwall, and Charleston Academy in Inverness are in dire need of replacement.

In addition to the desperate state of many buildings, there’s a shortage of staff, resulting in teacher burnout, and restricted opportunity for pupils. A lack of learning support staff has been an issue since our two were in primary in the mid-2000s. It doesn’t appear to have improved.

If school problems are acute in our larger towns and cities, they are worse in rural areas. A campaign called Save Our Rural Schools has been launched to demand equality in education for pupils at four of the UK’s smallest secondary schools, Farr, Gairloch, Kinlochbervie and Ullapool.

An open letter, sent by the parent councils of these rural West Highland schools to Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth and Highland Council Convenor Raymond Bremner has been signed by over 600 concerned parents and community members.

Campaigners claim that current staffing policies are having a disproportionately negative impact in small rural schools. In a clear and detailed 13-page Briefing Note, they spell out how the broad-brush formula shouldn’t apply to rural schools, and how allocation of learning support staff should relate directly to the needs of pupils. They also seek a properly supported virtual learning programme to widen subject choices, and incentives to attract staff.

I can’t argue with any of it.

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Every parent wants their child to be given the widest choices of subjects, and to be fully supported and encouraged in their learning by on-site staff. To help them develop into well-rounded individuals, we’d love our kids to enjoy a breadth of extra-curricular opportunities too, from sport to musical and artistic pursuits, through to challenges like Duke of Edinburgh.

I had all these opportunities attending a 1800-pupil secondary in the 80s, my kids had them at a similarly sized school in Inverness a decade ago. And campaigning parents today just want for their kids what other kids at schools across Scotland have. Is that too much to ask?

Sadly, I fear that it is. The reality is that there simply aren’t the resources available. Comparing the opportunities that a tiny 28-pupil school can provide with what can be offered in a city school, isn’t comparing like with like.

Our councils are under immense pressure in their struggle to support rural communities, whether in terms of education, housing, or economic and social equality.

The current lack of choice and support in rural schools is yet another symptom of the differences between rural and urban life, but there has got to be a balance. There is only one education pot, and the council is cripplingly cash strapped. While the parents’ demands feel entirely reasonable, and some of them must be met, funds diverted their way will mean another school is disadvantaged. From what I can see, no local authority school has more than it needs; all are making do and mending.

If it’s any comfort, equality in education encompasses more than curricular opportunity, important as that is. In my work for Developing the Young Workforce, I’ve visited most Highland schools. And the students with the greatest maturity, creativity, ability to articulate themselves, and respect for each other? Those at Farr High School. No contest.

Some things can’t be formally taught. And the life-skills and opportunities gifted by a small rural school, and by living in rural communities can, in some respects, outweigh the opportunities to be found in anonymous city.

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