Skye schools: Council accused of driving wedge between communities

Highland Council has begun appeal proceedings as it seeks to overturn a decision blocking moves to close three north Skye primary schools and build a new one in Dunvegan.

But the local authority has been slammed for “driving a wedge between communities”, in the wake of a damning report which threw out the original plans.

Last Friday the council lodged a summary application at Portree Sheriff Court seeking an appeal against the School Closure Review Panel’s decision to refuse consent for a new community school in Dunvegan.

The council’s plan involved the closure of the small primaries at Edinbane, Knockbreck and Struan. However, in May Scottish Government ministers called in the proposals, and referred the decision to the review panel, which was set up to allow parents a final opportunity to appeal against local school closures.

Earlier this month they rejected the council plans — the reasons for which were outlined in a highly-critical report.

Tim Spencer, a parent from Edinbane, said he was disappointed the council had chosen to appeal.

“The review panel’s report was quite lengthy and addressed multiple areas where the council’s so-called consultation was inadequate,” Mr Spencer added. “As such, it is clear that the ‘consultation’ wasn’t even a near-miss, it was nowhere near what is required.”

In rejecting the proposal the review panel described the failures as being “of such significance that they cannot be resolved through the imposition of conditions or by remitting the proposal to Highland Council for a fresh decision as to implementation”.

Edinbane school has been under threat

Among the findings was an admission that consultants had presented “no clinical data” on which to base an assertion that primary schools should ideally have enough pupils to sustain three classes.

The council remain convinced they have grounds for appeal.

Skye councillor Drew Millar, who is chairman of the education, children and adult services committee, said: “We strongly believe that the proposed new community school would deliver considerable educational and community benefits, and that the consultation process was thorough and correct in arriving at this conclusion.”

He said the panel’s criticism of the council’s “dual-zoning” proposal — which would allow children from Edinbane to attend either Dunvegan or MacDiarmid schools — was especially unjustified. This was an option which he said he and fellow councillor Hamish Fraser had secured in response to the specific wishes of parents.

Councillor Millar said £10 million had been earmarked for the overall project. But although the ongoing dispute had jeopardised plans for Dunvegan in the short term, he admitted a new-build may still go ahead there — regardless of what happens with the three other schools. “That will be a decision the council would have to make, but the need for a new school in Dunvegan hasn’t gone away. And as far as the size of it is concerned it would really make little difference what happens elsewhere. The fact is there are now so few kids at these other schools.”

Mr Spencer accused the council of pitting communities against one another. “I would question the tactics of some officials and some councillors in seeking to drive a wedge between communities,” he said. “The way the council continue to conflate the issue of Dunvegan requiring a new school with the closure of the smaller schools is deplorable. Dunvegan does need a new school, but north-west Skye should not be blackmailed into losing the smaller local schools.

“Unfortunately this appeal also prolongs even further a saga that has now been running for well over two years and began with the unlawful mothballing of the nursery here in Edinbane. It may well cause it to run into the next school year. We should also remember the central issues here. The council, instead of using bogus educational arguments to dogmatically follow an agenda of centralisation, should be supporting rural communities so that they remain sustainable. Neither should the council be seeking to impose journey times of up to an hour each way on very young children.”

On 30 March 2015 the School Closure Review Panels took over the responsibility from the Scottish Ministers of reviewing and determining certain local authority school closure decisions.