Over the Summer I travelled to Stornoway to meet with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) and while I was there I dropped into e-Sgoil (sgoil is Gaelic for school) to hear about how an e-learning programme from the Western Isles became a nationwide provider of remote teaching and benchmark for e-learning globally.
Given that the population of 26,500 is spread over 15 inhabited islands and that secondary schools have pupil rolls that range in size from 1000 to 87, education delivery in the Western Isles has always posed an interesting set of challenges – and technology was always going to be one of the solutions. E-Sgoil was originally launched by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in 2016 to address teacher shortages and to ensure equity in subject choices for all pupils across the council area, regardless of what school they’re at or where in the islands they’re located.
Teacher shortages are not unique to the Western Isles. Other rural local authorities, and indeed some non-rural authorities in Scotland experience the same issues, most often in areas such as languages (especially Gaelic) and STEM. After success in the Western Isles, where it became integral part of the education system, e-Sgoil received funding from both the Scottish Government and Bòrd na Gàidhlig (the Gaelic board), and was able to expand its remit nationally. The programme now delivers a range of subjects to schools in all of Scotland’s 32 local authorities as and when teacher demand requires, and is an official part of Scotland’s National e-learning Offer.
E-Sgoil had been providing remote learning to schools in Scotland since long before the pandemic, and was already recognised internationally as a distance learning model. Unsurprisingly, the programme has significantly increased its impact and reach since March 2020 – something that has been attributed to the strength of e-Sgoil’s collaboration with partner organisations such as Education Scotland, the Northern Alliance, Skills Development Scotland, The West Partnership, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, and Keep Scotland Beautiful.
Despite this increase in reach, the pandemic presented challenges too. In its aftermath, the public perception of e-learning has changed, with many now viewing it as a stop-gap solution to a crisis rather than an important and intrinsic part of a council’s education system. Virtual learning has been confused with “pandemic learning” and schools that retain online elements to teaching have been accused of copping out or hindering the return to “business as usual”.
There are also fears from teaching unions that embracing e-learning will lead to cuts in teacher numbers – In the summer of 2022, 88% of members of EIS in the Western Isles announced that they were willing to strike over “harmonised timetables and digitalised learning”.
The replacing of classroom-based teachers, though, goes very much against the spirit of e-Sgoil. They are clear in all of their messaging that it’s quite the opposite of that – that the programme offers staff and online teaching where schools can’t manage to employ a teacher because pupil uptake for a particular subject is too low, or there are teacher shortages. Further, that e-Sgoil allows teachers to work in a more flexible way, leading to some being retained in the profession who might otherwise have been unable to continue teaching.
Keeping it local and to illustrate this in my meeting I was given the example of a school in a very rural community on the island of Barra. Here, they only have the budget to employ an art teacher for a single day a week. One day’s employment per week is clearly not enough for the teacher to live or support a family on so ordinarily they would have to leave the community to seek employment elsewhere – removing a whole family from a small community, and all art teaching from the local school.
Enter e-Sgoil. The programme was able to employ that teacher to work teaching remotely for the other four days a week, allowing them to remain teaching in-person at the local school for the one day. The wins here are at least fourfold; the school keep their art teacher, the community keeps a young family, the teacher gets to stay in their community whilst also working full time, plus other schools across the country who also might be lacking an art teacher get to benefit from that teacher’s lessons. Additional spinoff benefits also include widening the range of subjects that schools can offer to pupils and improving digital skills for teachers as they are trained up in the use of the required software.
Given that e-Sgoil needs sustained support and finding in order to maintain its long-term viability, it’s important to recognise these benefits and shout about them.
And the success of e-Sgoil has been certainly been recognised internationally. They’ve presented at the World Education Summit, had a visit from the Welsh Government looking at how they might replicate the model, had inquiries from Finland about how to use technology to keep indigenous languages alive, and are engaging with island communities from Guernsey to Sicily on how e-learning can become an intrinsic part of their education system and address some of their unique island needs.
I left e-Sgoil very glad I stopped in to chat. It’s genuinely exciting to see an example of a local authority doing something to address its own issues so well that’s been scaled to provide a service right across the country – how specific local challenges can drive innovation and excellence – and also illustrates perfectly how digital solutions can be game-changers in rural and remote communities, addressing multiple issues simultaneously.