Smallest school in UK closes after only pupil leaves

The school in North Ronaldsay has closed after its only pupil left to go to high school. Picture: Geograph
The school in North Ronaldsay has closed after its only pupil left to go to high school. Picture: Geograph
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The smallest school in Britain, on the most remote island of the Orkneys, has closed after its only pupil left.

Teigan Scott, 12, has graduated from North Ronaldsay Primary School and will now take the ferry to secondary school on the on the Orkney Mainland.

The tiny school building, which had just one pupil on its roll for several years, is now officially on standby in case another primary age child arrives on the island, which has a population of just 50.

The closure has cast a shadow over the future of the island, which is served by two ferries a week – often cancelled in the winter - and flights to the island’s tiny airport.

North Isles Councillor Kevin Woodbridge believes an “abysmal” sea freight service, as a result of an inadequate terminal facility, has left the community at a tipping point, and sees the school closure as another nail in its coffin.

Teigan had been the only pupil at the school for several years - however, this one-pupil-one teacher set up was latterly combined with days spent at St Andrews Primary School and saw the youngster thrive.

But her parents Maureen Johnstone, David Scott say they now have significant fears for the island’s future.

They and their three children - Demi-Marie, now 23, Macsen, aged 16, and Teigan, 12, moved to one of the Orney Housing Association (AHOL) affordable houses in 2010.

“The population has gone down a lot in the seven years we have been here,” said Margaret.

“David and I are very apprehensive about what the future may hold and now there is no-one at the school it just seems ominous and the first step in another decline.”

Teigan said she had enjoyed the experience of being at a single pupil school and praised her teacher, Sarah Work.

“It was quite interesting being the only pupil. There weren’t really any bad bits. I enjoyed meeting others at St Andrews on other days and all my friends will be moving up in one class to KGS.”

A spokesman for the Orkney Islands Council said the classroom within the school would be kept “on standby”, as it is part of a building housing a range of community facilities.

A council spokesman said: “The classroom will be kept on standby from August onwards and would be used as a school room again if a family or families with primary age children move to the island.”

Meanwhile islanders are concerned about the future of North Ronaldsay, the northernmost island in the Orkney archipelago.

North Isles Councillor Kevin Woodbridge said: “This island has been shamefully neglected (or at least its needs misunderstood) for decades and it is hardly surprising that the community has withered away, whilst other areas of Orkney thrive.

“I firmly believe that without improvements to deliver a reliable berthing at North Ronaldsay pier there is little prospect of sustaining, let alone regenerating, the North Ronaldsay community, which really is at a tipping point. Even an alternate day reliable service would provide the basis for small industry, volume tourism and a quality of living that would be far more attractive for population retention and recruitment. It is certainly not too late, there remains a very strong community identity with a vigorously supportive diaspora, and its special heritage and culture would be a serious loss to the wider Orkney community.”

Councillor Woodbridge, who lives on North Ronaldsay, pointed out that during winter many weeks can pass without a ferry, with a once weekly freight plane delivering essential supplies.

“In the 21st century is it really considered acceptable that one of our Orkney island communities only receives fresh milk, bread, fruit and vegetables once a week, and can go weeks without surface freight? Anywhere else this would surely be considered emergency relief.”

The air service is a lifeline for the island, he continued, but is limited to being primarily a passenger service.

And while acknowledging other major issues such as housing, secondary education and broadband, the “make or break” factor for the island is a reliable ferry berth, he said.

“There are and have been families interested in relocating to the island but find the support services and infrastructures on neighbouring islands more attractive. Others have been discouraged by the requirement for going to the hostel for secondary education. Housing availability remains a limiting factor too, more social housing would be welcome. The North Ronaldsay Trust is now focusing on this issue with the development of a gateway house utilising the empty schoolhouse associated with plans to redevelop existing housing stock through the Rural Housing Fund on a rolling programme.”

But resident, Billy Muir MBE, chairman of the North Ronaldsay Community Council, has hit out at the perceived lack of support from Orkney Islands Council councillors to pivotal issues - such as lifeline air and sea services and housing.

“We are very worried as we are in a considerable dilemma,” Mr Muir said. “Services have already been cut to North Ronaldsay; particularly with the flights which is very unfair.

One family left the island because of it. The OIC does not play fairly.

“However, if changes could happen we could reverse the decline. But we have to get the council and councillors on board to make that happen.”

He feels top priority is housing - secure new, affordable properties and the knock-on effect will be to attract families - vital on an island which has a largely ageing population of around 50.

“Our only hope at the moment is to turn the schoolhouse into a gateway house. I think one solution may be to try and secure funding for a dyker, with a family, to come in and stay in the gateway house.”

A success story in 2010 saw two families move to North Ronaldsay’s first affordable rented housing - two properties built by OHAL - at the time securing the school’s future.