THE parents of children who attend a remote village school in Ross-shire have won their battle to maintain staffing levels in the face of a cut.
And in a significant turnaround, one critic of Highland Council’s initial stance has handed out high praise to education officials for offering “practical and workable” solutions to the school’s problems.
Anger erupted in the community when the acting head teacher revealed that the hours of one teacher at Strathconon Primary would be slashed due to a fall in pupil numbers.
Nicola Milne, one of two full-time members of staff at the school, faced having her week reduced to two-and-a-half days because the school roll for the coming term had dropped to 18 pupils.
With a statutory ratio of one teacher for every 10 children, the council maintained there were too few youngsters to warrant having two full-time teachers at the school, along with an acting head.
Parents feared the move would lead to a drop in pupils’ educational attainment and warned it also raised safety issues.
Parent Council secretary Lynsey Stewart said at the time that it was simply not feasible for one member of staff to teach 18 children aged from four to 12, with very different abilities, in one classroom.
The two teachers in place were recruited as a result of parents taking matters into their own hands after Highland Council’s efforts to hire staff had fallen flat.
And Mrs Stewart said the pupils had benefited enormously. “The children are thriving – the quality and output of work has shot through the roof,” she said. “We have worked really hard to get them back on track and we feel they are going to suffer as a result of this.”
Mrs Stewart added that the school also had a high ratio of children identified with additional support needs – around two thirds.
“Obviously they have been identified as needing extra care and nurturing, and all of this is time-consuming,” she said. “How on earth can one person teach 18 children aged four to 12 over seven year groups, some with English as their second language and some with challenging behaviour?”
But thanks to pressure and lobbying, the school is being allowed to keep two full-time members of staff for the coming session starting in August.
Mrs Stewart said this week: “I am pleased to report that things are looking promising for the immediate future of our little school. After extensive communication with Highland Council we have a number of measures in place for the next session which will ensure the continuity and high levels of support for the children and the staff.
“We honestly cannot praise Highland Council enough, especially the management within the care and learning department. Not only have they taken time to visit the school, speaking to parents, pupils and staff, they have listened to all our concerns and offered practical and workable solutions.
“They have been transparent and honest about what could be achieved within their many constraints. But at the forefront has always been the children and that, as parents, is all we can ask for. We would also like to thank the local councillors and many other people who took the time to support us.
“And hopefully we can attract some new families to our glen to ensure we maintain optimum numbers of both teachers and pupils for the 201819 session.”
Unless that happens, the school roll is predicted to fall to 17 for 201819, making a cut in teaching hours inevitable.
Councillor Kate Stephen, who supported parents in the fight to retain two full-time teachers, said: “Strathconon Primary has experienced a lot of change in the last few years – not least of which has been having to share a head teacher. The council is introducing cluster heads elsewhere but it is doing this as part of a review of management in schools, which means each school will have either a depute head or principal teacher.
“Strathconon has neither, and it was in this context that the proposed reduction of teaching time at the school was inappropriate. I am delighted that the council has looked again at the situation and has preserved the current level of staffing.”
And colleague Ian Cockburn echoed her views, saying: “It is good news that a solution has been found. Strathconon is a small rural school which has a good future in front of it, with works to the school premises to be carried out in the near future. Praise has to be given to all for finding a solution.”