A war of words broke out on Twitter yesterday (Friday January 11th) between Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the Daily Record newspaper over schooling in the Western Isles, particularly in relation to The Nicolson Institute in Stornoway.

This followed yet another article in the newspaper strongly critical of the school.

On Twitter the Council said “@Daily_Record and the journalist involved, should be ashamed of themselves.

“To refer to ‘Suicides School’ is not only insulting to pupils, parents and the community, it is also a breach of the Samaritans Guidelines on journalistic good practice.

“Shame on them.”

And the Council later added a further comment: “It is also insulting to the staff of the school.”

This came after the Daily Record chose to headline and sensationalise the fact that CnES was reacting to the well-publicised events last year by not only offering “All S4 and S5 pupils … a Suicide awareness – Safetalk from specially trained NHS staff” but also that “a similar session for parents will be offered in January 2019.”

Following a series of similar, critical articles in the run-up to Christmas, the Director of Education and Children’s Services Bernard Chisholm wrote out to staff at The Nicolson Institute and to councillors before the holidays, praising the work the staff had done and rebutting the claims made by the Daily Record.

He told the staff: “Over the last two years, by any measure, your hard work, commitment and enthusiasm has provided the necessary support to our children and young people to ensure that they continue to make significant progress in their attainment, achievements and community inputs.

“In whatever capacity you are employed, your collective effort has, and is, making a significant impact on our young people ensuring that they are: successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens.”

And he praised the young people themselves and their parents. “These outcomes would not be possible without the active support and engagement of our young people and their parents. Academic attainment and the achievements of our young people are far too many to record here but I can assure you they match, and in many cases exceed, those of schools and other local authorities in Scotland.’

He went on: “Each year when we celebrate our achievements at prize-giving ceremonies or end-of-term assemblies and indeed on a daily basis, it is inspiring to observe the talent of our young people, hear of their achievements and recognise the positive choices they are making to move to sustained and positive destinations in their studies and world-of-work after school.”

But then he turned to the sadness of recent times: “Our experience in education is mostly positive but sadly, on occasion, we are confronted by the realities and complexities of life both within and outwith the school.

“Over the last two years, our school communities have had to cope with significant levels of bereavement as a result of ill health, terrorism and suicide.

“Once again, it is a testament to the strength of our school community that each one of you has continued to work to provide a therapeutic environment for young people and, next to parents, constant daily support and the links between them and other agencies.”

He went on: “However, no system is perfect and we sometimes face challenges in meeting all needs. Unfortunately, in some situations, despite all our best efforts, we cannot solve every problem. In these circumstances, it is right that we reflect, identify what we could do better and work with others to move forward.”

Turning to the Daily Record, he totally rejected its claims that “levels of bullying and suicide in The Nicolson Institute reflect a major failure in school management and support to young people.

“I firmly disagree with this. I am disappointed once again to find that serious issues are being inappropriately reported in the tabloid and social media, with the context of the article being poorly informed and frequently misleading, or stating “facts” which are simply untrue.”

And he responded in details to claims made by the newspaper, pointing out that The Nicolson Institute faced the same challenges as schools anywhere.

He said the Record’s comment that “there are ‘grave concerns over the safety of dozens of pupils with many deemed a danger to themselves’ is inaccurate and misleading. Clearly, in every pupil population in Scotland there are pupils with a range of needs.” There is “no evidence to support the view that the pupil profile here is significantly different to the pupil profile elsewhere.

“More importantly, I can assure you that all young people assessed as needing support have an appropriate care plan in place and access to appropriate professionals.

“Children and young people in the Western Isles can speak to a counsellor at any time…all our secondary schools have had access to a highly specialised counselling service since May 2017.   This service is provided in-school and out-of-school and every pupil and parent has been notified of the helpline facility.”

On claims like ‘problem at the school is being swept under the carpet’ and ‘school has not done anything significant in relation to suicide prevention’, Mr Chisholm stated: “This is simply not true.”

On the Record’s comment that ‘neither the Director of Education or Head Teacher were available for comment’, he stated: “This is untrue. A reporter visited my home unannounced at 9pm.” It is understood Mr Chisholm was not there at the time.

H went on: “I understand that this is a breach of media protocol as they should have gone through the communications/media team.

“No attempt was made to contact me until a number of days later, when I responded within 24 hours to all the issues raised via email correspondence. This was a comprehensive response. No reporter contacted or requested information from the Head Teacher.”

Mr Chisholm concluded: “In my own view, it is reprehensible for a national paper to use the anniversary of a young person’s death to report such a story without regards to the family or facts, one day prior to the Christmas break.

“I, personally, find it disappointing in the extreme that the Daily Record, which has had a long connection with the Western Isles, has chosen to misrepresent the island and young people in this way.

“We will, of course, reflect on those who have passed away this year. We will remember them in a context where they were loved and positively regarded by our school community.”

Looking at the work of the education service in 2018, he told staff: “Dìleab provided all of us with an opportunity to consider the legacy we have been left from previous generations and the responsibility we have today”

And he praised the staff. “I believe you respect that responsibility and are doing all that you can to support parents to help them give the best educational experiences to our young people.”