Exclusive:Schools Scotland: Closures risk ripping 'heart and soul' from fragile rural communities in areas such as Aberdeenshire, Highland, Moray

Local authorities across much of northern Scotland are reviewing the future of schools

Plans to close or mothball schools risk ripping the “heart and soul” out of fragile rural communities, council chiefs have been warned.

Cash-strapped local authorities across much of northern Scotland have launched reviews into the future of their schools, with some planning closures.

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The move comes amid an ongoing controversy over plans to cut teacher numbers in areas such as Glasgow and Dundee.

Half-empty classroom.Half-empty classroom.
Half-empty classroom.

Primaries with falling rolls are being reviewed by some councils, as well as those with dilapidated buildings.

Figures obtained by The Scotsman show 118 schools are less than half full in Aberdeenshire, Highland, Moray and Orkney alone.

Councillors in Highland met on Thursday to consider a range of cuts designed to plug a £113 million hole in the authority’s budget over three years.

They rubber-stamped a plan that envisaged saving £900,000 between 2025 and 2027 by “reconfiguring school assets”, as well as removing 70 principal teacher posts in primaries, while retaining overall teacher numbers.

A third of Highland schools are in a “poor” condition, and the authority was left reeling last year after the Scottish Government rejected all of its bids for funding to replace crumbling primaries and an additional support for learning school.

Meanwhile, an analysis by The Scotsman shows 54 primary schools in the area, and ten secondaries, are less than half full.

Highland Council budget papers said: “Based on the previous experience of the service, as a consequence of falling rolls and roll projections in future years, the council is likely to require fewer school places. Savings will be realised through a combination of mothballing and closures across a number of settings.”

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The money would be saved through “reduced staffing requirement for teachers and ancillary staff”, as well as by spending less on rates, utilities and maintenance.

Opposition councillors warned of the impact of school closures on efforts to tackle depopulation, which pose an existential threat to communities in parts of the north and west. It comes just weeks after parent councils in rural communities in the Highlands joined forces to campaign for greater support for their schools.

In Shetland, councillors meet on Monday to consider continuing the mothballing of three schools, and to discuss the potential mothballing of another two, Skeld Primary School and Cullivoe Primary School.

Parents of pupils at Cullivoe in Yell have raised concerns about the data on pupil numbers going in front of councillors.

Alan Keith, chairman of the Cullivoe parent council, said: “We consider ‘mothballing’ to be school closure in all but name. The bare minimum we expect is that councillors consider accurate, up to date, and properly balanced information before potentially deciding to close the heart and soul of our community.”

The moves in Highland and Shetland follow a review launched by Aberdeenshire Council last month into the future of some of its rural primary schools. It has 29 schools operating at under 50 per cent capacity, with the figure expected to rise to 40 by 2028. A third of all primary schools in the area now have fewer than 50 pupils.

Councillors in Aberdeenshire heard about the potential to create “rural hubs”, which would serve clusters of smaller communities with a single community school.

Moray Council has 15 schools operating under 50 per cent capacity, expected to rise to 18 by 2028. It is also reviewing its learning estate.

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In Perth and Kinross, a recent survey found 19 primary schools had an occupancy of under 60 per cent.

A report to councillors in January said officials had currently identified “no solutions that would help to generate a sustainable school roll”.

Orkney Islands Council has ten schools at under 50 per cent capacity, which is due to rise to 12 by 2028. Officials believe the ongoing financial challenges mean there may need to be a debate around the size of the learning estate in future, although there are currently no plans for a review.

Greg Dempster is general secretary of AHDS, which represents head teachers, depute head teachers and principal teachers in Scotland’s primary schools.

He said: “Each situation needs to be looked at on its own merits because there are so many moving parts in this, and the quality of the education for the kids has to be at the heart of it.”

Mr Dempster added: "If a community loses its school, that will generally get an emotional response, and a lot of challenge locally to the loss of that school.

"But there are balancing factors that need to be thought about as well. A very small school restricts the opportunities that pupils can have, with a smaller peer group, in lots of different ways. And travelling distances are not the same as they were 50 years ago, in the sense that further distances are more manageable.

"But I’m not in any way suggesting that rural schools should be a target, because each and every situation needs to be looked at in its own merits, and whether there would be educational benefits from combining schools or whether the geography of an area just means that joining schools would be completely untenable for the communities involved.”

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Mr Dempster highlighted how councils will be aware from local development plans what housing developments are expected, and how demographics are changing in different areas.

"For instance, an area that has had a whole lot of house-building in the 1980s, and lots of families have moved in at that point and they’ve had to provide a large school estate, but then those householders don’t then move on, so that community is populated by older people whose families are away, then they don’t require the same level of school estate,” he said.

"But at some point there is going to be a progression where that housing stock moves on, and family homes are likely to be picked up by young families.”



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