Vote to close Skye schools, but council to consult on new catchments

BY MICHAEL RUSSELL

Highland Council’s aim of directing pupils from three closure-threatened schools in north Skye to a new school in Dunvegan was thrown into disarray this week as a result of an amendment tabled by Portree councillor Drew Millar.

The council want to build a new school with a capacity for 100 pupils in Dunvegan which will include pupils who attend Edinbane, Knockbreck and Struan primary schools.

This recom­menda­tion was considered by members of the education, children and adult services committee at a meeting in Inverness yesterday (Wednesday).

However, although the proposal to close the three schools and build a new one was approved, Mr Millar’s amendment paves the way for children who attend Edinbane to move east to Macdiarmid primary school.

It could also give parents in the Struan area the option of sending their children to Carbost rather than Dunvegan. Care and learning director Bill Alexander promised a new consultation involving Macdiarmid and Carbost will be undertaken if the full council approves the closures at a meeting in March.

Initially, Mr Millar had asked if the committee decision to approve the recommendation could be deferred until the autumn as a result of a late submission from the Edinbane community. This point was echoed by fellow Skye councillors John Gordon and Hamish Fraser.

This submission — endorsed by the parent council, community company, Skeabost and District community council and the village hall committee — proposed that the community company take responsibility for the “repair, maintenance and ultimate refurbishment” of the school building while the council continued to provide education within the community-owned premises.

Care and learning director Bill Alexander dismissed this suggestion. “We will continue to recommend that the four schools are closed and a new one built in Dunvegan,” he said. “If the community want to talk about land use then we can do that, but we believe the best educational outcomes for children in north Skye are in the new school.”

He also said that, while there would be “efficiency savings” achieved by the closures, the decision was taken on the basis of educational benefits.

At Wednesday’s meeting, NHS Highland’s Moira Duncan, who lives in Dunvegan, pointed out that a possible site for the new school, at Lonmore, is “outside the village, on a single track road with no pavements” and that closing the schools will have a “direct impact” on jobs in the area.

Committee chairman Alasdair Christie said there will be further engagement with the community if a “preferred option site” is chosen.

Both Mr Millar and Mr Renwick pointed out that the 30 minute-travel time for some children to the new school was optimistic.

Given this week’s weather, Mr Renwick said an hour or so for a child from Geary picked up by a school bus was not unrealisitc.

“You could have children as young as four-and-a-half on this bus, which will have nobody on it apart from the driver. Has this been considered?”

As most parents from Edinbane travel to Portree for work, and that Struan and Carbost share a head teacher, Mr Millar’s amendment on catchment areas was accepted, after a 10-minute break to agree on a form of words.

Edinbane parent Tim Spencer criticised the council for switching off the webcast cameras during the 10-minute break.

“This agreement to consult on the catchment areas doesn’t mean anything. The council and their consultants, Caledonian Economics, were told many, many times that the catchment areas were an issue but they refused to take it on board.

“The decision on what they are going to do was obviously taken during the 10-minute break and it is highly questionable in terms of local democracy. The council are happy for us to view live what they want us to see but when it comes to a difficult decision the camera gets switched off.”

Meanwhile, David Thompson, SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch has received a response from Learning Minister Alasdair Allan on the subject of “calling in” the council decision to close the schools.

In a letter, Mr Allan wrote: “If the council decides to implement its proposals, it is required to notify the Scottish Ministers, who have eight weeks to decide whether to issue a call-in notice. In deciding whether to issue a call-in notice, the Minister are required to take account of any relevant representations made to them within the first three weeks of the eight-week period.”

Dr Allan went on to say that the role of Scottish Ministers was clarified by the Court of Session judgment in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar v Scottish Ministers.