At the obs

Fair Isle's rich bird life tempts many visitors to this remote place. Many of them stay at the islan

For most places in the UK the end of summer means the end of the tourist season; for us this is not the case. Late September and October are high season for birds and, consequently, high season for birders.

The island feels full of life at this time of year. Small clusters of people wander endlessly around the roads and fields, with an identical look of quiet, concentrated optimism on their faces – a look which only birders and anglers can truly muster.

Towards the end of the day their sheen of optimism may have worn off slightly, but there remains always an underlying energy that can snap into frantic action whenever required. If a "good bird" is spotted, there will be a rush to the spot, and a small crowd of birders can swell to a great mob within minutes.

Over the past week there has been a veritable flock of these good birds, including a buff-bellied pipit, two lanceolated warblers, thrush nightingale, Pallass’s grasshopper warbler and a grey-cheeked thrush. And that’s what folk come to Fair Isle for.

For the vast majority of visitors, particularly of the ornithological persuasion, the destination of choice is the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. As well as being a centre for the collection of scientific data on bird migration and breeding, the observatory is also a guesthouse, and a significant contributor to the island’s economy.

'The obs', as it is known to both islanders and visitors, is home year-round to a warden and administrator, Deryk and Hollie Shaw, and their four children. Between spring and late autumn it also employs assistant wardens, a ranger, cooks and general assistants. These additional staff – about eight in all – usually spend the entire season in Fair Isle, and play an important role in the island’s life. Increasing the population by more than 10 per cent, they help to add to the vibrancy of the community during the period, and their arrival each year, like the arrival of the birds, is a welcome reminder that winter is finally at an end.

It is difficult to explain or to quantify the importance of the obs to Fair Isle. To attempt to do so in financial terms – the numbers of visitors and the cash they bring to the isle – is to underestimate, and, I think, to misunderstand the nature of the relationship.

It is, in many ways, an unusual and a peculiar relationship. Not only are the full-time staff and their family a significant part of the community, but the observatory itself, as an institution, has a presence within the island that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

To some extent this is just a question of longevity. The obs began its days almost 60 years ago, in August 1948, so it as been around for a long time. But the island and the observatory have evolved and developed together over that time. The connection has become symbiotic, and the success of one has also been the success of the other.

Today that success is greater than ever, and big changes are planned for the obs. The current building was first constructed in 1969, and, despite some improvements over the years, is no longer considered fit for the purpose. So plans are being drawn up to replace it with a modern building – more comfortable, more weather-proof and more environmentally sound.

This development will mean that for the first time the obs will have to be closed to visitors for one season – most likely 2009. The scientific work will continue during that time, however. And when the new observatory opens its doors the following spring, it will be a great step into the future, for the obs and for the island.

* * *

I am migrating away from the island for the next few weeks, but will return to Fair Isle, and to this page, later in October.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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