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Disadvantaged pupils to lose vital help as Highland Council looks to cut MCR Pathways' funding

By Scott Maclennan

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Disadvantaged pupils set to lose vital support due to Highland Council cuts MCR Pathways.
Disadvantaged pupils set to lose vital support due to Highland Council cuts MCR Pathways.

Seven north schools and hundreds of young people are set to lose MCR Pathways’ vital mentoring programme designed to help the most disadvantaged pupils.

Its future is threatened because Highland Council wants to cut its funding to save just under £200,000.

The local authority passed its budget at the end of last month amid a storm of protest about a complete lack of detail. There were also allegations it had not consulted with key partners despite attempting an extensive public engagement exercise.

MCR Pathways now looks like it could be one of the big losers and it is pleading with the council to reconsider the cuts, citing not just the terrible human cost to vulnerable young Highlanders but also the financial impact on the region.

The acclaimed school mentoring programme launched in the Highlands in November 2021 at Inverness High, Wick High, Inverness Royal Academy, Lochaber High, Dingwall Academy, Alness Academy and Invergordon Academy.

The cuts came as a shock to the organisation. MCR Pathways head of finance Mike Evans revealed it was only confirmed five days after the budget was agreed.

“At that time we were led to believe that the cut would be from the beginning of April,” he said.

“This has subsequently been extended to May following our representations that this didn’t meet any common standard for redundancy, far less those of dealing with young kids’ lives.”

MCR Pathways head of finance Mike Evans.
MCR Pathways head of finance Mike Evans.

That loss of cash from the council could put the programme co-ordinators – technically employed by the council – out of a job and harm schools and young people relying on the service.

“If we are not successful in overturning this decision, that one sense of stability in their lives will be literally ripped away – something we will not allow,” Mr Evans said.

“At present our mentors are working with over 50 young kids in Highland alone who have lost through bereavement one or both adults and a similar number who are themselves registered carers.

“We are reliably informed that it was only when we spoke to the headteachers that they knew our service was being cut and they were appalled and shocked. This will make an extremely challenging job even more challenging.

“One headteacher who runs a relatively high-performing school within the Highland cohort told us ‘we are hanging on by our fingernails because of lack of support services for young people and MCR Pathways was the only remaining jewel that they could go to’.”

Adding to the frustration of those working for and with the MCR Pathways programme is the feeling that compared to what it delivers for the young people and what it saves the public purse, it is inexpensive.

Mr Evans said: “The current funding from Highland Council covers seven schools which should cost them about £196,000 in salaries and on costs although at present we are running the seven schools on six co-ordinators as Alness and Invergordon share a co-ordinator.

“In effect therefore the cost will be around £168,000 which with 92,205 council tax payers – ignoring business rates – equates to £1.82 per person per annum. In Highland, there are around 192,000 citizens so the cost per citizen would be less than £1 per year.”

He adds that is just the cost – the saving from “reduced social security, prison costs, drug addiction, and indeed deaths through suicide” is much higher, something he roughly puts at £1.2 million or £6.25 per Highland resident per year.

Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Ian Blackford said: “Everyone understands the pressure every public body is under when it comes to allocating funding but in my opinion what is done with MCR is something which is vital to supporting young people, the most disadvantaged young people, including those that come from the care sector.

“We need to make sure we can meet those levels of care so that they can achieve the best that they can – they can fulfil their potential coming through childhood into adulthood and it is really critical that this is an investment in the children’s future that must be maintained.

“Of course it is a Scottish Government initiative that goes back to a personal commitment made by the then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and something which was also endorsed by Humza Yousaf as First Minister as well.

“How we support and look after people is critical as well and it is well known that those in care often face the most challenging of circumstances to make sure they can fulfil their potential.”

A Highland Council spokesperson said: “MCR Pathways is one of a number of mentoring and support programmes that are in operation across Highland, working with young people and young adults in schools and communities.

"Funding for these programmes comes from a variety of different sources and some of the funding streams are coming to an end.

"We are reviewing the remaining funding we have and how best to deploy it to support young people and young adults in our schools and communities.

"The contract with the MCR Pathways organisation will be ending in May, but the coordinators who work directly with our schools, mentors and mentees are Highland Council employees and we will work with them and the schools where they are based to ensure that young people continue to receive the support they need.”

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