Dr Lilian Moncrieff from the School of Law at the University of Glasgow, writes in response to the Strategy for Secondary Education in Shetland (SSES), released last week.
I became concerned reading the report that important issues bearing on the future of secondary education in Shetland are not being addressed in such a way as to meaningfully bear upon the decisions, which lie before council members this Wednesday.
This is, in significant part, due to the efficiency discourse that seems to have wholly overtaken the judgment of children’s services, which struggles with all appreciation of family, community, social and substantive educational values on account of their difficult measurement and quantification in economic terms.
No research or even discussion is relayed, in the report, which addresses the depreciation of personal, family and community time or relationships involved for rural students.
At its worst, the report directs readers to a somewhat dubious (and highly subjective) fantasy in which family life is succeeded by access to a hand-held ICT device and an ensuite toilet.
I entreat councillors to reject plans for the rationalisation of secondary education proposed on Wednesday and offer the following pieces of research (a few from many) in opposition to the narrowing exercise, which is being advanced in education and well-being.
I note that preferable to the research would be to listen to experienced members of the community, concerned about these issues, and every impact that I have noted here says little more than what has already been said.
However, where engagement of external consultants is an approach designed to supersede listening, I have used research as a way to engage decision makers and substantiate public concern.
1. Family and community impact
Oncescu and Giles (2012) observe many shifts in the interpersonal relationships of rural families as a result of school closure in Canada. Families with school-aged children drive greater distances for school-related activities, putting a strain on family leisure time.
Extended family members, such as aunts and uncles or grandparents, have fewer opportunities to interact with the young and their parents (and they are also less likely to be part of the school community). This change, participants reported, affects the “closeness” of families.
The study found that school closure drives students and their parents into outlying communities for school-related activities. This “disconnects” parents and school aged children from their local community; peer-to-peer relationships in the village are affected.
New relationships are also fostered out with the community, proving resilience and the creation of new communities. However, this does not obliterate the observed casualties for the rural community and family relationships.
The research raises important questions about whether the loss of these in situ communities is something that a rural society (like Shetland) can or should tolerate, particularly where it requires acting against a community’s chosen values or autonomy.
For more on the social impact of rural school closures, see Witten et al (2009, 2003) (loss of community knowledge, disengagement of distant parents from school communities), Egelund (2006) (reduced opportunities for social cohesion in rural Scandinavia) and Miller (1993) (weakening of intergenerational bonds, parental influence) – all pertinent considerations for decisions that affect secondary age children.
2. Outdoors experience
The RSPB (2010) “every child outdoors” campaign cites the extensive research emerging on the diverse benefits for children of contact with nature and outdoor experiences, with positive impacts on education, creative thinking skills, physical health, emotional well-being, personal and social skills, and responsible citizenship.
Do SSES recommendations for rural children (centralising and urbanising education for many) maximise these benefits, and how does the promise of “at least one outdoor experience per term” (SSES) compare with the current outdoor resources available to rural JHS students in Shetland (travelling less, not requiring two lane carriageways, and studying in a rural environment)?
Kellert (2005) discusses time spent outside “particularly during the critical period of middle childhood” (7 or 8 to adolescence) as “an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving and emotional and intellectual development”. This raises questions about busing children from a younger age and not at the more mature 16.
Also interesting is Louv (2010), describing various impacts on young people of increasing immersion indoors and in virtual environments (a “nature deficit”) and calling for more direct experience of the outdoors in education and beyond, and Natural England’s report (2010) on the value of nature and wilderness for teenagers, specifically. This is a growing body of research, which seeks a revival of outdoor sensibilities.
Community respondents have already said plenty on this subject. However, where the SSES report, at p36, describes the disadvantages associated with extra travel and residential accommodation required for rural students as “subjective”, it is not enough; concerns are not being addressed.
Research carried out for the Scottish government on commuting to school (2002) testifies to effects on children’s physical and mental health, cognitive and social development. Physical exercise, self-image, participation in extra-curricular activities, educational performance and particular (eg spatial) skills are affected. This is in addition to the impacts on outdoor experience cited above.
Research on adult commuting, for some time now, has shown a link between longer commutes and higher levels of mental and physical health problems, generally less happy and contented people (Frey 2011, Gallup 2010). There is no reason why these findings would not apply equally to children, where if anything the impact could be more pronounced.
4. Private sector involvement in secondary education
There is extensive reference to this possibility in the report. If this is a serious direction for education in Shetland, surely it should be addressed in terms of the advantages and disadvantages that it brings more directly; mentioning energy companies as education providers casually – as the report does – is not acceptable, particularly where it takes on the status of a reason to move young people out of their community.
I would ask councillors to think about training for livelihood as one vital part of education, and not the whole. It is also something that should not serve the interests of economy before the interests of rural children, whose complex and multi-dimensional needs might just be nourished more appropriately by community and family relationships in the early years of secondary education rather than engineering clubs and hospitality courses – whatever happened to volunteering in the kitchen at the community hall.
I refer councillors to the possibility of obtaining an entirely different perspective simply by hiring a different expert (eg Professor Karl Jan Solstad, a Norwegian expert who grew up in a small rural island community and has worked on rural schools and curricula, studying school closures and the impact of long journeys on student well-being since the mid 1960s), and using the insight obtained to take their own decision on the recommendations made in the report.