BY MICHAEL RUSSELL
Insisting that Highland primary schools contain no fewer than three classes was based on anecdotal evidence obtained from head teachers, it was revealed at a meeting this week in Dunvegan in Skye.
As part of Highland Council’s consultation into the possible closure of three schools — Edinbane, Knockbreck and Struan — and the construction of a badly-needed new school at Dunvegan, the meeting heard from Frank Newall of Caledonian Economics, who said there was no research or data on which the three-class requirement was based. “We do have data from the people parents put their trust in every day of their children’s lives,” he added. Based on previous workshop events attended by head teachers it was the “general consensus” that three classes provide the best educational context for teachers and pupils, Mr Newall said. “In a small school that context is not there,” he added.
Tim Spencer, a member of Edinbane Parent Council, said it was clear that CalEc had “cherry-picked” information from discussions with head teachers. He highlighted a recent study from England, conducted by schools watchdog Ofsted and using a “very large dataset”, showing that schools with fewer than 50 pupils performed much better than schools with between 50 and 100 pupils.
“You have done no research,” he added. “You are selling us bogus educational benefits.”
The council plan to build a new school at Dunvegan, on land currently owned by MacLeod Estates, which they estimate will have a roll of 100. However, Edinbane Parent Council chairwoman Frances Maclean said no realistic projection for the school roll existed and that most of the school-age children in Edinbane would not go to Dunvegan if a new school was built there.
Edinbane parent Bob Paul said there was a declining roll forecast for Dunvegan but a rising roll for the other three schools. Area education manager Norma Young said it was “difficult to predict” school rolls but added that that any projections were based on council policy.
“Have you asked where parents are going to send their children?” said Mr Paul. Ms Young would only say that all parents would have a right to submit placing requests if they wanted their child to go to another school.
Amanda Broughton, chairwoman of Knockbreck Primary School parent council, said she did not recognise the problems highlighted by Mr Newall regarding the lack of social interaction and the “enormously stressful and demanding job” of being a single teacher.
“We chose our local school because of its reputation and because of the teachers,” she added. “We have fantastic teachers and the inspections have been very good. I don’t know how you can come up with this argument.”
Tim Hunter Davies, from Skinidin, asked why there was no accurate information in the consultation document on the travel times to the new school.
“There is a lot of detail that’s lacking from this document,” he said. “It does not take long to get the children’s travel times. You put their postcodes into Google and you have a spreadsheet.”
Education officer Ian Jackson admited that the travel times had not been worked out but that some children could be on the bus for over half-an-hour per trip.
“If we are moving schools you should at least be able to tell us how long our children will have to travel for,” one parent said.
Another parent asked how much the new school would cost and how it would be financed. Mr Jackson said that no capital figure had been given in the consultation document, while Brian Porter, head of service, said it would be a “traditional capital-financed project”.
One parent of three children under the age of four said she would send her children to Struan Primary if it stayed open, but was unable to use the local nursery as that had been “mothballed” as had Edinbane nursery.
Mr Jackson said that a final report on the consultation would be published three weeks before the adult and children’s services committee meeting to decide on the proposals, on 12th November. He also said that, if the proposals were approved by the full council the following month, the new school would take about three years to plan and build.
Mr Spencer asked Ms Young if Edinbane nursery would remain closed until the new school opened. She said: “It is not closed — we do not have provision at present.”
Referring to the council’s ongoing budget consultation, Mrs Maclean suggested that they have an “honest dialogue” about savings. Shortening the school day could be considered for Edinbane given the output of the pupils on a daily basis, she said.
After the meeting, Ian Blackford, a director of the North West Skye Recreation Association, said that if the council decided to keep the schools open it should not be forgotten that “serious investment” was needed for the existing school at Dunvegan.
The assocation have been offered land by MacLeod Estates and Roag township on which to build new sporting facilities.