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The truths they don't want you to read....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Schools and education

I have a long term interest in Education in the Western Isles for the very simple and selfish reason that we have three children using the system, and we want to see the best for them at every level.

As regular readers will know, I have been disturbed by some aspects of current and future educational provision in the islands.  That's not just about teaching methods, subject choices or physical structures, but about how all these elements and more fit together to give every child the best possible chance in life.

Some of the fixtures in the Council offices have preferred to interpret this as personal criticism, because that's easier to ignore, whilst others have tried to actually find solutions.

Sitting here in Edinburgh, with our children unable to reach their school and nursery, I have had a chance to reflect on the overall provision in the islands.

I am not happy to have been proved right about Castlebay School, where I was the only one to give voice to concerns of pupils, teachers and parents, but in classic gagging mode, the Council tried to shoot the messenger rather than respond to the message, until it was way too late.

It can't be a matter of resources - as 42% of the Council budget goes on Education - but is obviously one of management, direction and guidance from on high.

At this point, let's pause to consider how this is going to improve if all the schools earmarked for closure and the new schools and the increased number of teachers have less and less of the pie to actually provide education, without some fundamental changes to the way education is organised and delivered. Or alternatively, if our MSP can get some more very large sums of money from the Government.  Something that doesn't appear to be on any agenda at the moment.

It is with great disappointment, worry and concern for the future, that I am starting to receive reports that parts of the Nicolson Institute may be suffering from exactly the same problems that have beset Castlebay, and that there is a failure of management to respond or deal with the concerns of parents.

I'm starting to get the feel of a dysfunctional organisation slowly collapsing under the weight of it's own consultations were ticking boxes, developing courses that pupils aren't able to attain and with no clear strategic approach.  All the decisions are giving the impression of being knee-jerk reactions to immediate events.

This is not being helped by the lack of clear, consistent, support from Councillors.  The hokey-cokey of closure-retention by some of our representatives is nothing short of disgraceful.  How Morag Munro has kept her sanity is beyond me.

Of course, the SNP Group might be able to find the funds to keep some of the rural schools open, but all this will do is put a very expensive elastoplast on a festering sore.  It is not the time for easy decisions, but it is the time for the right decisions to ensure that the pupils are being educated, and not simply attending schools.


Anonymous said...

I can't help wondering whether the time has come for the Western Isles (for a variety of reasons including the Education Department) to be absorbed into another council.

With the size of the existing population and the current 'more chiefs than Indians' structure of officials and councillors, there's little hope for any strategic decisions ever being made again.

It's a sad thought.

Anonymous said...

I've looked around the Comhairle website, but cannot - still - find the statistics such as pass rate for last summers Western Isles school exams.

Does anyone:

1. Know where they are online?
2. Know how they compare to the national/Scottish figures in the same subject areas?

These are important things, to parent of current or future children, or to families thinking of moving to the islands.

Thank you.

Concerned of Stornoway said...

I am glad that you are taking up the cause of the Nicolson. Its pupils could do a lot better, and the utter, unbelieveable chaos of the building works is slowly making an average school into a poor one.

As a parent, who expects to be using the Nicolson for quite some while for my procession of kids, this is worrying.

It seems to me that the Nicolson is a reasonable school if your child is fairly bright, outgoing, musical, Gaelic-speaking or sporty. If you have the temerity to have a very bright child, or one who is a little quiet, or is being bullied, or who has specific health problems, then the system lacks the expertise to help.

And there is a fairly slack approach to discipline, which allows fairly young children (in S1 and S2) to wander aimlessly round town at lunchtimes. This leads to problems of exclusion, bullying and to a dreadful diet). The canteen facilities cannot cope.

Please keep pushing at this open door, Angus.

Anonymous said...

If you cared about their education what are they doing out of school in Edinburgh in the first place?

Does it say something about the society that we're living in where, for a sustained period, we have not been able to attract a sutable Rector to the school?

There are two sets of management here, the school and the white house. Both have failed.

Angus said...

Anon 6:38. You clearly don't live in Lewis, as you would know that this weekend was an official holiday.

Kids left school when it closed on Thursday pm and were due to return when it re-opened on Tuesday am.

We now expect to get back on Wednesday pm. Another class mate of the eldest expected to be back on Sunday pm and now hopes to be back on Friday pm.

Care to repost (not anonymously)?

Mrs N said...

6:38pm I rarely post on this blog but I am very cross that someone suggests that my children are deliberately taken out of school for no apparent reason. I came down to Edinburgh, on important business on Wednesday, as the school was closed on Friday and Monday, Angus brought the children down on Thursday night, after school for the weekend. Our intention was for Angus to do some business on Monday and we had a flight booked on Monday evening so that our children could go back to school on Tuesday morning when they re-opened. Edinburgh airport was closed most of Sunday, all of Monday and most of today. We have sensibly booked the first available flight out of Glasgow tomorrow and the children will be back at school on Thursday. This was not our intention but unfortunately we did not have a crystal ball to predict the snow chaos. In the meantime, our children have played in the snow, done some maths work and written their Christmas cards to their friends. We take our childrens' schooling extremely seriously which is why we are so concerned about the reports from concerned Nicolson Institute parents that the quality of education is lacking.

Anonymous said...

You are obviously someone who has no knowledge of the school calendar and just want to have a dig at a very conscientious parent. I am one of many parents who took their children away for some Christmas shopping last weekend. Schools were closed Friday and Monday which makes a lovely long weekend on the mainland. Unfortunately Inverness and Edinburgh flights have been cancelled for the last three days and future flights are booked up. We don't want our children to miss school, even if the majority of their school days are taken up by practising for the Christmas concert, but unfortunately this is the position. Maybe it is a sign that we should leave our children down here so that they get a better and more rounded education. You really need to get your facts right before you criticise someone.

Anonymous said...

Do you ever consider "Free Schools" as a solution to the problem of school closings ... and everything else.

Anonymous said...

Nothing about the Nicolson Institute would surprise me, there are lots of strange things going on at that school.My son and his class were told today that they would not be sitting the credit English prelim tomorrow, instead they will be sitting the general paper. The school has below average pass rates for English and Maths much like Castlebay, yet no one appears interested. I have heard that the Rector treats the parent council with contempt,ignoring their requests and throwing sulks when they ask for information.The management attitude is, ignore the problem and shoot the messanger.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of horror stories I have about the Nicolson, and I am not someone who went there decades ago, but in the 21st flipping century.

It would obviously be wrong to apply blanket criticism as there were some excellent teachers, but some were clearly dross who got shunted there out of sight and out of mind, under no scrutiny whatsoever, who if they had lived somewhere less remote and cronyistic, would have been exposed years ago.

Not just the teaching, the everyday attitude, things like bullying policy, basically non existent.

Anonymous said...

Though these issues may be more pronounced at the edge, I do not think the Comhairle's problems are unique.

We have far too many people in Education Departments everywhere in Scotland who have no long-term experience of managing schools.

And that especially applies to Secondary schools - far more complex than their Primary counterparts in curriculum and other matters.

It's a huge issue and not just one that exists in the Comhairle.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the reaction of parents in Stornoway would be if they were told their school was closing and their children had to make a return trip to Ness every day...would they be so keen then? I think we all know the answer to this one.

Anonymous said...

Given that schools are a major issue for most parents, our latest publicity - cages and now suing damns the whole local authority in terms of education and will definitely damage our reputation as a destination for moving to. Well done CNES.

Anonymous said...

11.27- I think some parents would be happy for their kids to travel any distance to get a decent education. It is clear that the Nicolson is a failing school, with poor results, and the blame can be laid fairly and squarely at the door of senior management, who are more focussed on freebies to China than on providing a good education for ALL, and helping each child achieve their potential.

Anonymous said...

It is obvious to me , as a fairly recent ex-pupil, that nothing has changed in the once famous Nicolson, now unfortunately infamous for poor results and not, as it should be, for pupil achievement. It was ever thus, unless you had a parent who was a teacher\minister\rich you were left to fend for yourself, with inadequate disfunctional teachers, who sneered and bullied their way, often, to promotion. Unfortunately the spotlight has been on other educational issues, rather than on addressing the scandal of a very inadequate school, which consistently fails to address its manifest shortcomings.

Anonymous said...

How sad to see the Nicolson,a once great school, plummet to the level of an inner city sink school. Can this possibly be the same school noted and respected throughout Scotland for it's many achievements, both academic and sporting? The English and maths departments are a disgrace. The decline has been evident since Eddie Young retired as Rector, many years ago, the last of a long line of gifted Heads. Question is- who is prepared to do something about it?

Anonymous said...

My my Mrs N, we are sensitive to any unfounded allegations, its the very fuel that this blog runs on.

Anonymous said...


Anybody has the opportunity to come on to this blog and post in rebuttal. Mrs N chose to. Others do not.

Mrs N said...

I don't disagree with you but there are lines that shouldn't be crossed and the care of our children is one of them...

Anonymous said...

I very much agree with your statement:
a dysfunctional organisation slowly collapsing under the weight of it's own consultations with no clear strategic approach. All the decisions are giving the impression of being knee-jerk reactions to immediate events.

This is not being helped by the lack of clear, consistent, support from Councillors.

As refers to the state of the current Nicolson Institute. I would say this statement also typifies the current state of CnES!

Anonymous said...

It is my experience that children do best when encouraged by their parents. The majority succeed not because of but in spite of their teachers and bosses. Parents can not accept any criticism whatsoever and are more than happy to lay the blame for lack of attainment at the classroom door. An abject abdication of responsibility and an indicator of how we expect the state to do everything and be responsible for everything in our lives.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else have problems with the Maths, or science departments at the Nicolson recently? I would be interested to see them voiced here. Perhaps an accumulation of outspokenness would draw more attention to the "goingons" at the school. We are having major problems with the chemistry provision and the ability of staff to provide adequate provision.

Anonymous said...

Whatever is going on now, can correspondents please spare us the guff about the 'once great Nicolson Institute'. When was this golden age for the majority of pupils? It's more than 40 years since I left, and if you think that the teaching of Maths in the 1960s in the NI was the apex of achievement, or getting taught geography by a teacher (Head of Department) who permanently carried a belt over his shoulder an used it at the slightest opportunity was a wonderful experience, think again.

Anonymous said...

Re - 9.00 am

I couldn't agree more.

Family and friends are responsible for 94% of a child's language development. Teachers only add in a mere 6% of the mix.

This especially applies to a child's vocabulary which is as restrictive or extensive as used in the family home. More than anything else this determines how well or badly children perform at their Higher English level.

Very easy to blame teachers for everything. More difficult for pupils to look in the mirror.

Anonymous said...

Re 9.oo am

Sorry - not 'pupils to look in the mirror'

Should be 'parents'!! How often these days do some of them read or lead by example?

Anonymous said...

Children deserve a rounded life. This includes a good education, upbringing, discipline, rules and boundaries. They should be encouraged to read books, enjoy learning both inside and outside school and be children for a long as possible. This means they should not be subjected to the tripe that our social media tries to encourage us to become involved in. My primary school aged boys have asked who Cheryl Cole is because their mates "fancy" her. They don't even know what the word fancy means apart from the literal meaning. Parents have to lead by example and teachers are there to reinforce and get them through the exams. This doesn't let NI or any other failing institutions off the hook but certainly all the blame doesn't lie with them.

Anonymous said...

Well here's the thing.

My father sold jamjars to get in to the cinema. I guess he was about 6.

He queued AT 2 in the morning on Mondays to get his mum first place on Monday's washing. That would be the place nearest the boiler. I guess he would be about 6.

He got up at 4 in the morning to do a milk round to buy classical music records.I guess he would be about 8.

I'm sorry. I can't go on. I'm writing his story when I can but talking about it brings me close to tears when I consider the children of my own family.

Who just want..want... want... As if it was an entitlement.

saoghalbeag said...

interesting that someone has raised the issue of independent schools. Rapidly growing in other parts of the world they often have higher attainment and can force the local state provided schools to lift their game. Why can't the Western Isles set the trend for once, instead of this incessent whinging??? Forgive me for the frustration, but if the school situations are so dire (and I've taught at the Nic and would not want to send my child there), then for pity's sake, step up to the plate and DO something! I'm sorry to post as anon but it's been so long since I posted I can't recall my pw. The school situation brings me to tears. And also: to support the others who have pointed out that education STARTS IN THE HOME. I cannot stand parents who blame teachers for THEIR OWN failings. Put yourself in front of 30 kids and see what wisdom you can impart. If parents are reading to their children from birth, spending TIME with them and constantly and consistently making an effort to encourage them in their learning, they are not as likely to succeed.

Anonymous said...

you lot make me sick, with your stories of the past (I woundn't be where I am today if it wasn't for.... rubbish) and the lets blame poor parenting attitude.

I pay taxes and by law my children have to go to school. The least we can expect is that they are taught by competent teachers, after all, as tax payers we do pay their saleries.

My children may not have a chance at a great future if the N I continues to fail them.

Anonymous said...

Independent/home schooling is not the answer. It will just mean that kids will be indoctrinated in religious beliefs of their parents like in America and there will be no one to challenge their views.

Unrelatedly, one of the problems I felt when I was at the Niccy was the issue of selection. There was always a percentage of kids intent on raising hell, disrupting classes etc, which spoilt it for everyone. Perhaps because it is our only secondary school, we get people of many abilities, intelligence and behavioural levels.

There should have been more selection based on talent and ability so that badly behaved pupils did not hold court and threaten and intimidate us.

Anonymous said...

Re - 12.17 pm

Sorry to disturb your rant...

There is, however, a great deal of evidence to suggest that a good grade in Higher English is much more linked to the vocabulary and the verbal reasoning skills of parents than any other single factor.

Judging by your response and your failure to recognise your responsibilities in these matters, your poor kids don't stand a chance!

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank 11.03 PM for being brave enough to say what has been said. Well done. No one is kidding on for a minute that we would go back to those days, but getting to where we are we have lost a lot of our self reliance. We are being neutered by successive governments, that is the real tragedy.

Anonymous said...


Do you have children at the N I currently?

Are you aware of what is actually going on inside the school with regard to teaching practices? I am keen to know, a yes or no will do! or are you travelling down the political route of 200 words for an answer when 1 will do.

Anonymous said...

Independent school....

Daft idea.

The common theme here seems to be the School and not the Council. So independence from the council would not make any difference as the same heads of dept, as rectors etc, etc would be in place.

If the school has been failing as mentioned over a sustained period of time when both Rectors & Department Heads have moved on, then it falls on one persons shoulders. The Director of Education.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who thinks that the education system owes our children a living and once they start school it gives them an out for their responsibility are totally irresponsible parents. Those parents who don't look through their childrens' school bags at night to check their homework, who don't ask them what they did at school during the day and try their best to reinforce it and spend time with their children talking and reading deserves to have a child who is delinquent in their education. Responsibility, encouragement and reinforcement. That is the minimum parents' responsiblity. As taxpayers we expect our children to be given a good education, as parents we have a responsibility to make sure that our children achieve everything that they are capable of.

Anonymous said...


Castlebay / Nicholson

The common theme here seems to be the School and the Council!

Anonymous said...

Yes parents should care for their children but it is soul destroying when despite everything you can do at home, you are clearly up against a school which thinks that a third rate education is good enough for your kids - Its not just the NI and Castle Bay which are failing.

Anonymous said...

Re - 1.18 pm

My answer is no!

However, I have enough experience of life upon the planet to spot someone who is dodging their own responsibilities in the upbringing of a child.

Clearly, you don't pay much attention to the accuracy of your own English. The splashdash nature of your postings tells me that. (Don't do as I do - do as I say!)

You also mindlessly reject other people's experiences eg you make me sick, stories of the past etc. It's as if what other people have learned through life is of no signifance.

And then the master-stroke 'I pay taxes', as if that's all you have to do for a child.

The Gospel of Entitlement summed up. While there are undoubtedly problems in the Nicolson and elsewhere, they are partly caused by people with your attitude.

Anonymous said...


I live a good part of my life on the internet. Your remarks, in most forums, would constitute hostile and interpersonal posting.

Angus - I think it would do no harm to draw up a few rules in this regard.

Anonymous said...


I agree.

Angus- could you draw up some such ? I'd be happy to give you guidelines if needed. And speak to your moderators who are allowing these posts.

Anonymous said...

Re - 8.20 pm

And 12.17's remarks do not?

Sorry, but a school is - by and large - a reflection of a community and its values. It does not exist independently of it, but is made up of people - parents, teachers and pupils - whose results and performances are determined by the way a community as a whole behaves.

If too many people dodge their own responsibilities, in the way that this individual appears to me to do, any school, no matter how good or bad it is, is really up against it.

Anonymous said...

Dear 1.47

Thank you for your one word answer which I requested.

I shall ignore the rest of your sentiments.

Anonymous said...

Why don't we rename homework? We could call it Lazy-teacher work or government shambles work or CNES work. Back in the day I never did any homework - then again I never passed my exams - go figure. You live and die by your own efforts no-one elses.

And as for the request to censor and the offer to speak to the moderators. If people take easy offense they shouldn't be using flippant and derogatory language themselves. If people can't take it they shouldn't dish it out.

Anonymous said...

Not that I necessarily agree with 1:47, I really don't think that the comment should be moderated in any way. There have been far more abusive postings on this blog over the years that have barely raised a sigh! Isn't this a place to air ones views without censorship?

Anonymous said...


Well here's the thing. I don't 'dish it'. I'm experienced in internet use and therefore I only write what I would be prepared to say face to face and in front of a large number of people.

Anonymous said...

Re - 5.30 pm

Totally agree.

Unfortunately, though, there are people writing in here who think they have a perfect right to bruise others but not get bruised in return.

Anonymous said...

The post is not about internet etiquette so let's put that to bed. Please start another post if that's your interest. Back to school.......

Anonymous said...

How does one acquire exam result percentages? I wrote to the rector and have been ignored. My concern is 4th year sciences. My child tells me that physics and biology is well taught, while chemistry is poorly taught. Is my child telling me the truth? Surely the 4th years first sit NAB results from November would answer that. Does the chemistry NAB stand out as excessively poor? I wonder why the rector is not forthcoming? I guess I'll have to waste more taxpayers money and ask via an FOI request. I would argue that it is not unreasonable for a parent to demand the school to publish these results.

Anonymous said...

Ignoring all of the (ironically) childish finger-pointing between anonymous posters, the previous poster makes a good point that the second one made.


Does anyone know where they are online? Does anyone have them; and if they do, can they be posted online (and preferably compared with the national figures)?

Thank you, to anyone who can do this.

Anonymous said...

Not that it is really any comfort. But for a long number of years we on Barra have been of the considered opinion that the Education Department ignores all problems in Castlebay until either they go away of their own accord (parent or pupil moves away or staff member retires/ moves on)or they become so big they can no longer be ignored. It si in a beackhanded way something of a comfort to know we are no the only ones, after all!
I am delighted to say I no longer have a child at school, but I think that a very large number of parents who still have children in school (N.I. or Castlebay) feel inhibited in expressing their doubts and insecurities for fear that their child may find themselves on the receiving end of some unwelcome attention. It is profoundly important that a method of preserving concerned parents' anonymity is available in dealings with the Education Department and/or the school. The parent council is generally that vehicle, and should be accorded the respect and attention it deserves when dealing with the school or the CnES.

Anonymous said...

10:39PM Good points. It would be useful if these schoolchildren and/or parents could put their experiences online, and link/index them so people are aware of them.

There's several free blogging platforms available that are easy to use. These include:

MadEddieH said...

The national/authority level results percentages etc can be found here.

The school level results haven't been published yet but should be this month and will be available here.

Anonymous said...

Re - 7.20 pm

Given the unequal standard of NABs even within subjects, I'm not sure that this info would actually tell you very much. They are neither equal nor infallible devices to predict a pupil's performance in a subject.I'm only surprised that the Rector hasn't written a letter or phoned you pointing this out.

However,the overall exam results are a different matter and should be freely available to anyone who asks.

Anonymous said...


Please can you explain how the NABs are unequal?

I believe they are important, as they tell us how how well the subject has been taught in school and how well the pupil has learned. I am also aware of its importance, e.g if the NAB and resits are failed, the pupil is not allowed to proceed with the prelim examination.

Anonymous said...

Re - 12.04

They are unequal in terms of the standards they are set by. For instance, in, say, the Close Reading part of English Higher, there are easier passages than others. There are also differences between the difficulties in NABs in other ways. The Critical Essay in English is a very complex skill. Some teachers leave that NAB till near the end of the session to ensure pupils have mastered its demands.

It is also very hard to compare one body of knowledge with another. (One can see this in the large differences that can be seen even in the percentage pass it takes to gain a Higher in one subject from the next, also from year to year within some subjects.) To return to the question, it could be the case that one particular Chemistry NAB is more 'difficult' than its counterpart in another subject.

I agree they're necessary for pupils to pass but I think it's much too complex a matter to come to easy conclusions about departmental performance to compare achievements in NABs. Even how 'easy' the Standard Grade exams in some subjects are should be considered before easy answers can be reached.

Is this plain - or helpful?

Anonymous said...


I just want to know how many of the current 4th year group passed and how many failed (percentages will do)the first (practice NAB) and then the formal Chemistry NAB in November (last month).

Simples........ no?

Anonymous said...

Re - 9.12

The main reservation I would make about that is that you could not draw any broad comparisions about the relative strengths and weaknesses of departments from such information.

Again, neither NABs nor subjects are exactly the same. Neither are the pupils who sit these exams. You would really need to know how the pupils who sit these NABs are performing across a wide range of their subjects before any kind of real comparison could be made.

In fact, I would even go so far as to argue that full exam results (at the end of session) would be required before anything like accurate conclusions can be reached. A NAB isn't going to tell you anything of importance.

Anonymous said...


I beg to differ.

Anonymous said...

Re - 8.51

On what grounds?