BRUCE ROBERTSON, Highland Council's director of education, chooses his words carefully as he considers the threatened closure of Roy Bridge school. "The options are straightforward. The decision-making will be very difficult."
In two months' time, the council will meet to decide whether this small community of just 467 souls, eight miles from Fort William, is to lose its primary school, close the doors of its run-down Victorian building, its temporary toilets and two leaking huts, and see its 30 pupils bussed three miles down the road to larger premises at the neighbouring village of Spean Bridge.
It is a story that seems depressingly familiar, but this one challenges every Highland clich. Far from representing the decline of rural communities, falling school rolls and sullen residents, this could become a landmark case, showing the resilience of local people who are prepared to take matters into their own hands rather than stand back and watch fate dictate events.
Instead of relying on a few protest meetings, a small group of Roy Bridge residents have suggested a scheme that could set a new pattern for rural education. They have offered to borrow money from the bank to build a new school themselves, designed to their own specifications, with opportunities for sports facilities and affordable housing, then lease it back to the council over a 20-year period.
They are proposing a version of the government's private finance initiative, but with a crucial difference - the profit element would be removed. This would be replaced by a novel concept - a public community partnership, which would see the project initiated and managed by the people of Roy Bridge. Funding would be provided by the bank, and at the end of the lease period the building would be owned by the council. What is being proposed is, in effect, a commercial partnership between a community and its local authority.
This proposal is more than just pie in the sky. Architectural drawings have been produced; the Bank of Scotland's community banking scheme has offered to lend 70% of the estimated 1.04 million cost at 2% over the base rate; a landowner in the area has offered to close the gap with a gift of 50,000; a 180-signature petition from pupils has elicited cross-party support from MSPs; and public meetings have indicated overwhelming local backing for the idea. And Roy Bridge residents have a proven track record for funding. They have already raised close to 300,000 to refurbish the school house as a village hall, and they believe that this would count towards their partnership contribution.
Catherine Mackinnon, a local parent who, with a group of three others, is the driving force behind the initiative, says, "There is a lot of good will towards the project, because this is the school we would like, rather than one that is simply dumped on us by the council. We are acting as intermediaries to enable something to happen, not for profit, but to meet the needs of the community. We do feel that this could be a pathfinder project that could be done in other areas."
To say that councillors are ambivalent about the idea is an understatement. A three-month consultation process, launched last year, has been reluctantly extended. A meeting of the education committee last month postponed a decision. Their own worst-case figures suggest that the project would be far more expensive than locals claim, though they have been less than forthcoming with their calculations.
This reluctance is partly financial, partly political. Local government is never keen on surrendering control over matters regarded as being within its remit. Robertson admits that if the council approved this project, it might open the floodgates to others, but he says that he approaches the Roy Bridge proposal from a strictly neutral standpoint. "There are three questions," he says. "Does it provide best value? Would it stand scrutiny by Audit Scotland [the Scottish Executive's accounting body], and what risks would the council be absorbing? That is, what will the local situation be, say, 30 years down the line? Would the population statistics be able to justify it? And should our own statutory decision-making be dependent on the generosity of a local benefactor?"
Both sides dispute the other's figures. The Roy Bridge residents claim that their project would be cheaper in the long run for Highland Council than refurbishing Spean Bridge school and bussing the pupils there and back every day. They say the travel costs would amount to 25,000 a year; adding the new accommodation that would be needed at Spean Bridge would come to 183,000; and, controversially, they also say that the council would lose an estimated income of 164,000, which the Executive contributes to keep rural schools with fewer than 70 pupils going. Their calculation is that the council's annual repayment to the bank would amount to between 60,000 and 90,000, depending on how much funding it could raise, and that when all the costs are taken into consideration this would represent an annual saving to the council of 100,000.
Robertson is briskly dismissive of the suggestion that the council would lose its Executive grant. "That is based on the overall number of small schools in an area, not on one single school," he says.
Nor, clearly, does he accept that the Roy Bridge proposal would represent a saving - in fact, most council calculations suggest that it would be more expensive. Its consultation document puts the cost of the new building at nearly 1.5 million, estimates that the annual charge to the council would be 91,000, and believes overall costs would rise by 200,000.
But more important than the financial calculations are the implications for the community itself, and the lessons for the Highlands in general. As Catherine Mackinnon points out, this is not a case of falling school rolls and a declining area. On the contrary. New housing and the arrival of several new families suggest that pupil numbers will rise, not fall, over the next few years. "Pre-school numbers are going up," she says. "And, surprisingly, the size of new families is also increasing. Times are changing in the Highlands, and sometimes I think that those people in their offices in Inverness haven't quite realised what is happening. There is no good reason to close this school, but there are lots of bad ones."
Among the bad ones would be the councillors' instinct to maintain a centralised education agenda, rather than handing matters over to local enterprise and the wishes of a community. As another Roy Bridge resident, John Toal, commented in a powerful letter to the area education manager, "Highland Council appears not to be afraid that the Roy Bridge community's visionary proposal for authentic educational facilities in its village should fail, but rather that it might succeed. It is not the possibility of failure that is the problem, but the possibility of community success, and what that would appear to indicate about the collective lack of vision within local government."
This is almost certainly unfair on Robertson and his fellow councillors, who will meet again to consider the matter in August. But at the very least they are aware that the people of Roy Bridge are serious about their plans. They are dedicated to the survival of their community, and are unlikely to surrender without a fight.
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