Exclusive:‘Shocking’ pupil commutes of up to 87 miles to study key subjects in Scotland

Huge distances trigger fresh calls for Scottish Government investment in schools

Pupils in parts of Scotland are commuting up to 87 miles for lessons in key subjects amid falling teacher numbers, it can be revealed.

Details of the “shocking” journeys to study the likes of English, Maths and STEM subjects led to renewed calls for investment in teachers and schools last night.

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Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie said the “depressing reality” was down to the SNP’s failure to promote teaching as a rewarding career.

School pupils in a classroom. Image: Danny Lawson/PA WireSchool pupils in a classroom. Image: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
School pupils in a classroom. Image: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Consortia arrangements allow pupils to study courses that are not available at their own school, often by travelling to classes at another school or college.

Options can become more limited in rural areas, however, due to the distances between schools. The same schools can also be more likely to face challenges recruiting teachers and some struggle to offer a wide range of subjects.

Increasingly, courses can be studied online, including via the e-Sgoil model developed in the Western Isles, but many pupils and parents want teaching to be in-person, even if they have to make their own arrangements.

Research by the Scottish Lib Dems looked at some of the distances being travelled by youngsters in parts of Scotland.

In Argyll and Bute, they found a pupil travelled 87 miles to Dunoon Grammar School to study Advanced Higher English last year.

In the same area, freedom of information request responses suggest another pupil journeyed 58 miles to Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh monthly as part of an Advanced Higher in Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies.

Two pupils in Moray were travelling 17 miles to study Advanced Higher Maths and Advanced Higher Biology in 2021/22, and in East Lothian pupils travel up to 23 miles for a Foundation Apprenticeship in scientific technologies, based at Dunbar Grammar School.

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Meanwhile, 14 pupils in Angus had to travel to another school in 2022/23 to study Advanced Higher Biology, Advanced Higher Chemistry, Advanced Higher Maths and Advanced Higher History. One of these journeys involved a 22 mile trip by taxi and train.

Several local authorities also reported significant increases in the number of pupils involved in consortia arrangements in recent years.

It comes as figures last week confirmed there were now more than 1,000 fewer full-time equivalent teachers in Scotland than when the SNP came to power in 2007, despite pledges to increase numbers, with some councils now planning huge, further reductions in the next few years to help balance the books, including Glasgow.

The Scotsman also revealed last week that there were significant shortfalls in the number of students studying to be secondary teachers in key subjects, such as Maths, English and sciences.

Education chiefs are discussing whether “significant structural changes” will be needed as a result, and were considering a review to “identify consequences for schools”.

Mr Rennie, Lib Dem education spokesman, said: “No young person should ever have to trek 87 miles to get to and from their lessons, but the SNP’s neglect of education has made that a depressing reality.

“Pupils are having to make these shocking commutes for key subjects, including English, Maths and STEM. They take huge chunks out of the school day, precious time that could be better spent learning or engaging in extra-curricular activities.

“Young people want to develop their interests and talents, but they can’t be expected to do that if the guidance and support just isn’t there. So much of this comes down to the SNP’s abject failure to promote teaching as a rewarding career.

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"Their failure creates a vicious cycle that diminishes the skills of future generations and undermines teacher recruitment for years to come.

“Education was once a defining mission for the SNP, but it has fast become their defining failure.”

Argyll and Bute Council highlighted that the pupil who was travelling 87 miles had been offered the course online, however the family wanted in-person support.

Rural areas have traditionally struggled to recruit and retain teachers in some subjects, and the number of student teachers agreeing to be sent anywhere in Scotland, in exchange for financial incentives, is falling.

Meanwhile, the Scotsman reported earlier this month that several rural local authorities in northern Scotland are reviewing the future of their schools, amid huge funding pressures.

Mike Corbett, national official for Scotland at the NASUWT teaching union, said: “We want kids to have the best opportunities possible, so we know sometimes that means maybe they are going to have to travel, whether it be to a neighbouring secondary or a local college, to take up that opportunity.

"So in principle, we understand that is quite a good arrangement in terms of opening up opportunities for some young people who otherwise wouldn’t have them.

"However, there surely has to be a reasonable line drawn somewhere in terms of how far those pupils have to travel to take up those opportunities, because while it is good they are maybe going off to do that Advanced Higher somewhere, if it is taking them a long time, and they have to travel a long distance, how is that impacting on their other subjects that they are studying day-to-day in their own school?

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"It does all come back around I suppose to the inevitable point about resources and teacher numbers being available. More resource being put in the system, more teachers being available, would mean that in their home school there would potentially be more opportunities for them.”

A spokesperson for Argyll and Bute Council said: “We are committed to delivering the best educational outcomes for our children and young people across Argyll and Bute and are incredibly proud to have award-winning schools in the area.

"The decrease in teacher numbers is a national issue and not unique to Argyll and Bute. Nationally, there is competition in recruiting teaching skills.

"Argyll and Bute has unique challenges, many of our schools are in rural locations. We are taking action to address this with ongoing recruitment campaigns highlighting the benefits of moving to the area.”

On the pupil who travelled 87 miles, the council said: “We partner with other schools across the area to offer young people access to courses and qualifications.

"On this one occasion, the course was offered online to the young person. Although this was not essential to the learning offered, the family chose to have some in-person support and were happy to make their own arrangements.”

An East Lothian Council spokesperson said: “All core subjects continue to be delivered in all of our secondary schools, with senior phase pupils having the opportunity to choose to study a Foundation Apprenticeship in Scientific Technologies. As such, the points being made are not relevant.

“Foundation Apprenticeships combine in-school learning with vocational skills and industry partnership. Schools offer particular specialisms and work closely with industry to deliver that qualification. This includes the provision of work-based placements. Scientific Technologies is based in Dunbar Grammar School but available to all students.”

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A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “It has always been the responsibility of local councils to recruit and employ teachers, based on local needs and circumstances.

“Scotland has more teachers per pupil and the highest paid teachers in the UK – as well as investing more per pupil than any other UK nation, and this investment has seen significant improvements in attainment in the most recent figures and record levels of positive destinations for school leavers.”



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