North Roe Primary School isn’t your average primary school. There are just nine pupils in the little primary school, in a crofting community in the remote north of Shetland’s Mainland, close to where its northernmost road ends. When we visit, in late May, most of the pupils are spending their weekends out lambing on their family crofts.
Hannah Irvine isn’t your average headteacher, either, and not exactly what you’d expect in this part of the world. At just 26, she’s you could imagine her working at a big-city PR firm or hedge fund, such is her poise and general put-togetherness. But her looks are perhaps deceiving: Hannah grew up fishing with her father, and—like the pupils she teaches—likes spending her weekends off on the boat at the creels.
Having grown up in Shetland with two older sisters, she studied teaching in Edinburgh and did her first year’s teaching at Skeld Primary, a small two-teacher school on the west side of Shetland. After a stint at a large primary school in West Lothian, Scotland, teaching a class of 30, she moved back to Shetland in summer 2015 to take the job at North Roe. “Though I’m not from North Roe, I feel like I’m a big part of a community,” she says. “That sense of community is so strong round here. When I’m at work, it’s like having another family.”
Hannah is a teaching head in what is officially a one-teacher school—though another teacher, Mrs Claire Robertson, comes in for a day and a half every week so that Hannah gets time to do admin. On this Thursday afternoon, we sit in for an hour to watch how simultaneously teaching nine pupils ranging from Primary One to Five actually works.
On an interactive whiteboard, the younger kids are filling in sections of a circle, learning about fractions. “You could pretend it’s a cake,” suggests Hannah. “Or will that make you too hungry?” When she leaves her little circle to help the older kids, the younger kids carry on, and vice versa. The vibe in the classroom is controlled, and peaceful, like the view out the window, looking out across the water to the island of Yell.
“You’re trying to give everyone the right amount of challenge and support,” says Hannah. “It’s a challenge to teach different year groups, but you can tailor the learning to each child’s specific needs. And the children in the class very quickly adapt to it. The older ones especially enjoy it because they see themselves as little teachers, too. They’re always on hands to help the younger children with their learning, and it reinforces it for them.”
The classroom itself reinforces learning, too, with just about every inch of wall-space in the room covered with educational tid-bits or pieces of the kids work. There are surprisingly advanced posters about similes, metaphors adverbs and conjunctions. There’s a large poster about social media, imploring kids to ‘THINK’ before they post. A good post on Snapchat or Instagram, goes the poster, should be: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind.
Near the art and writing stations, there’s a tally that rewards the children for healthy eating. Part of one wall is inspired by the Friends TV show, and features quotes from the kids on why they’re friends, and why—in the words of the title song—they’ll be there for each other. There’s even positive messaging in the loos, where a poster above the hand tissues reads: ‘Take a moment to appreciate how awesome you are. Yeah, you.’
Everything feels very 2018—forward-thinking, tech-aware, inclusive, geared towards positive self-esteem. And, while this is a remote school in a crofting area, there’s also an awareness of national and global events. On the week we visit, inspired by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s upcoming nuptials, Primary Two pupils Robbie and Millie are planning a mock-wedding, with the whole school involved as ministers, bridesmaids, ring-bearers etc. Everyone’s very excited: Thomas, who is in P4, proclaims he’s just as excited by the wedding as he is by his own upcoming ninth birthday. When we ask bride-to-be Millie if she’s similar to Meghan Markle, her response is, “Pretty much”.
The North Roe Royal Wedding is a typical school event in the sense that everyone has a role to play. Hannah talks with obvious pride about last year’s Christmas performance of the musical Annie, in which the nine pupils shared more than 30 characters, and even the Primary Ones had to learn more than 50 lines each. “I’m not sure I’d quite realised how many characters there were,” she laughs. “But we figured it out, and the children were amazing. There were more than a hundred people watching in the North Roe Hall, but they were so confident up on stage.”
As the class carries on, the kids come out to the foyer area for little on-camera interviews. Vaila, a nine-year-old in Primary Five, sums up what going to school in North Roe is like. “Everyone’s really kind to everyone else,” she says. “And you get to learn so much more from everyone because they can help you, and you can help them too.” Like most of the pupils, she is effusive about her teacher. “Miss Irvine is the beautifulest teacher in the world,” she proclaims. But she’s a good teacher, too, right? “Yes, she’s amazing.”
When the day finishes, the kids rush outside to play football or clamber on the climbing frame. Everyone plays together, and there are no signs of covetousness or exclusion. Most of the children at the North Roe Primary School live within walking distance of the school, and they’re clearly friends outside of it. Scott, a lively tackler who is in Primary Five, lives about 20 steps from the school’s front door, so it doesn’t really matter that he forgets his ball after our little kick-about.
“I very rarely hear these children talk about sitting at home on computer games,” says Hannah. “They’re either out helping on the croft with the sheep, or out on the fishing boat, setting off creels, catching lobsters, fishing. The outdoors is very much the main play area, and they really to learn to play together, and be accepting.”
It should be noted that schools like North Roe Primary are far from the only types of school on offer in Shetland. There are much larger primary schools, like Bell’s Brae Primary in Lerwick; and most of the kids at North Roe Primary will go to the high school in Brae, a 25-minute drive south. Shetland’s largest school, Lerwick’s Anderson High School, has up to 900 pupils and had a £55.75 million makeover in 2017, relocating to a new state-of-the-art building and halls of residence, with access to the sports facilities, pool and running track at the neighbouring Clickimin centre.
Running a school almost singlehandedly is unquestionably hard work, and Hannah admits it can be hard to switch off and emotionally disengage. But she does have a life outside of work. She lives with her fiance Alexander in Voe, a pretty village half an hour’s drive south of the school (this is considered a lengthy commute in Shetland, even if Hannah rarely passes more than a few cars). Life involves hockey and, when the weather’s nice at the weekend, heading out on their boat to fish for mackerel or check their creels. Hannah’s father was a fishermen and now works on tugboats, hence the connection to the sea. As a teenager, she once won an Eela, the local term for a rod-fishing competition on traditional wooden boats.
Like her two older sisters, who went to the Scottish Mainland for university, Hannah always wanted to move home. And, despite a constant struggle for free time, she talks up the number of things to do in Shetland. “Whatever you’re into: whether you’re sporty, or musical, or an artist, or just like going going for walks, you’ve got everything you need up here,” she says. “Just seeing the sunrise on my way to work, and seeing the view from the school, I realise how lucky I am to live here.”
We’re lucky, too. On our final morning in Shetland, the sky is a brilliant blue, and we meet Hannah and Alexander on the family boat in the little harbour at Voe, which looks like a picture-perfect Norwegian fjord-side village. As we head west towards their creels, the rolling, treeless moss-green landscapes either side of the fjord have the vividness of a high-definition TV screensaver. The pots have a few crabs but nothing worth taking home. And the mackerel aren’t biting. But, on a beautiful Sunday morning in late May, none of this matters whatsoever. Life is good.
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