“The children don’t like it. It’s quite heartbreaking when you go down to the pier to see them off and they are all in tears and all the mums are crying.”
The transition to secondary school can be hard in any setting, but for the inhabitants of the Island of Coll in the Inner Hebrides, it is worse.
The dozen children have to travel to the mainland to stay in a hostel at Oban. When the weekend ferry stops in October, they know they will not see their families for weeks, sometimes months on end.
Coll is the model for the idyllic Struay in the popular Katie Morag books for children. When Chris Cook, who has a stepchild at Oban high school, another going next year, two younger children and one more on the way, came with his family from urban Helensburgh six years ago, he admits they had not quite taken the situation on board.
“The ferry doesn’t come in the winter and so they go off after Christmas and that’s them, except for maybe a couple of days in February, until spring.
“In summer they come back for the weekend. They want to come, but they have to get up at five on Saturday and then it’s three hours on the ferry so they arrive exhausted, and they go back on Sunday, so you really only get an afternoon with them.
“Sometimes if the weather is bad the ferry can’t get into the pier. I’ve known it hold off for 10 hours before turning back.”
For Cook one of the ironies of the situation is that the nearest island, Tiree, only two miles away, has a fully-funded high school with 12 teachers, 54 pupils and enviable results, twice as good as the Scottish average. He would like a solution to be found to allow Coll children to go there.
To make matters worse, he says, “There have been problems at the hostel. There are a lot of children in the building and they complain they don’t get any privacy.”
A recent HMI report showed that more than two-thirds of the pupils were unhappy with aspects of hostel life, many complaining of a lack of privacy and overcrowding – or bullying.
Denise Willis lives on the isle of Lismore, a 50-minute ferry ride from Oban. Her daughter Eilidh started at secondary last month and her son Murray is in the third year.
“My husband was born and bred here and went to the hostel himself, but I was very worried about it and it has been very hard. Eilidh doesn’t like it. She is pretty miserable.
“She needs her sleep and I don’t know if she is getting enough. She has phoned me at 10.30pm before. Sometimes there are high jinks and I know it is 11 o’clock before they go to sleep. I worry that there are not enough staff, often there are only four on and there are 85 children on three floors.
“Murray has settled now but he was bullied quite badly. Some children took mobile phone pictures of themselves hitting him over the head.
“The staff are very nice and they deal with the bullying when it’s pointed out, but it is difficult for them to prevent it because there are not enough of them.
“Oban school is a good school and I want them to have the opportunities. But it is stressful. Whenever the phone rings I think it will be the hostel. Eilidh is very homesick.”
Alison Maclean’s daughter Flora from Lismore, Eilidh’s best friend, is homesick, too. Maclean says: “I went to the hostel and there are lots of things for them to do there. They just have to get on with it and get out and make friends instead of sitting in their room.” But she is unhappy about children aged 18 being housed with 12-year-olds.
Argyll and Bute council refused permission for Education Guardian to visit the hostel or speak to staff, but a spokesman said some work had been done since last year’s HMI report and that more money was being set aside to upgrade the hostel.
Hannah Bowyer lives on the Knoydart peninsula, which is not connected to the UK mainland by any roads and is accessible only by boat from Mallaig. She took her youngest child out of school in Mallaig after she was very homesick. With the help of friends she homeschooled Lara until she went to a local FE college in the fourth year. “It’s a massive commitment but it worked for us,” she says.
Reuben Campbell Paine also lives on Lismore but rather than go to Oban, his parents pay £240 a month for him to travel to a hostel at Ardnamurchan high in the neighbouring local authority of Highland. His mother, Sarah Campbell, says: “I don’t think we would have moved here if we hadn’t known we could send Reuben to Ardnamurchan. It is hard to find the money. But the hostel is great and there are only eight children.”
Reuben, 13, rises early on a Monday to catch two ferries to school. He enjoys hostel life. “We get our own room and we have our own en-suites. I do shinty, football and kayaking. We have to come in at 5.30 for dinner, which comes from a restaurant. I’m not homesick.”
The hostel’s manager, Penny Derham, says: “We are very lucky, we have really nice facilities. There is a study hour when they all do homework, and that can be hard to arrange at home. They have the freedom of the village of Strontian, which is about two square miles. We don’t have too many problems.”
Keith Topping, professor of education and social research at Dundee University, says the trouble with hostels is partly the result of the parting shot of the Thatcher administration, when the powerful Strathclyde regional authority was carved into several bits, leaving Scotland with 32 education authorities. “It may be that Scotland has too many local authorities. Argyll and Bute may not have the resources it needs to deal with these problems. At least Highland has some critical mass, some economies of scale, although it is not that big in population terms.”
Argyll and Bute has a population of 90,000 and a coastline longer than France’s. It includes 30 islands, many of them inhabited by small numbers.
The Scottish executive has no information on children who travel to school hostels. The department of rural development said it was a matter for education, and education said it was a matter for local authorities.
“If there are major inequalities of provision in different areas it may be that the Scottish executive should get involved, but it would need to gather some data first,” Topping says.
Land reform and infrastructure improvements mean that the population of the outer Hebrides is growing and Highland is planning to build a 27-bed hostel in Mallaig for island children, though there may be a question mark over funding.
For the headteacher at Eigg primary, Hilda Abrahams, travelling to hostel is just part of island life. “If they are ever going to live here they will need to be independent and self-reliant. A new hostel will be great because they can be together and they need the opportunities to socialise and make friends.”
Tuesday 11 September 2007