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West Highland parents say their high schools "are beyond breaking point"


By Iona M.J. MacDonald

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An open letter from the Save Our Rural Schools campaign lays bare the woeful shortcomings that have a far-reaching impact on pupils, staff and communities, reports IONA M.J. MACDONALD.

Ullapool High School. Picture: Iona M.J. MacDonald.
Ullapool High School. Picture: Iona M.J. MacDonald.

FOUR high school parent councils have joined forces to shine a light on the dire circumstances of education in rural schools on the Highland west coast.

Parents from Ullapool, Gairloch, Kinlochbervie and Farr High Schools, have launched a Save Our Rural Schools campaign in an open letter to Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth and Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner.

The open letter has already received over 300 signatures. It bluntly tells of how the small rural schools are “failing to provide a basic curriculum” due to unavailability of core subjects, under-staffing, and insufficient funding that is “taking its toll” on the future and wellbeing of pupils, teachers and the livelihoods of these rural communities.

Parents have stated that despite “heroic efforts from teaching staff to find creative solutions to the funding crisis, the situation has gone beyond breaking point” at these four west coast schools. According to the open letter, teachers and support staff being stretched to their limits has led to an “increasing concern for their wellbeing”.

“Our school community is on its knees,” said co-chair of the Gairloch High School parent council, Fiona Mackenzie. “While we wholeheartedly commend the commitment and efforts of all the teaching and support staff, we still aren’t even able to provide a basic curriculum for the pupils.

“Our schools, if funded sufficiently, can be the key to reversing rural depopulation by attracting more families to stay and relocate – but who will move here if we can’t even offer the basics?”

Fiona Mackenzie, co-chair of Gairloch High School parent council.
Fiona Mackenzie, co-chair of Gairloch High School parent council.

Many pupils at these schools are unable to take their chosen subjects, including several core subjects being unavailable due to “insufficient funding to deliver even a basic curriculum”.

Kinlochbervie High School’s unavailable subjects for pupils at any level include computing, accounting, modern studies, drama and home economics.

Likewise, Gairloch High School cannot provide modern studies or history as subjects for their pupils, with uncertainty about the provision of hospitality in the school’s future – a key subject and career choice for a village on the NC500 route, where tourism plays a key role in the local economy.

“Our kids should not have limited career options because of where they live. Politicians telling us there is no money is unacceptable,” stated Onie Tibbit, the co-chair of Gairloch High School parent council. “We moved our daughter from a large central belt secondary to one of the smallest schools in the UK. The creativity and commitment of the teachers here is incredible, but small schools need investment and support if they are to provide a broad, consistent curriculum for every pupil.”

Onie Tibbit, co-chair of Gairloch High School parent council.
Onie Tibbit, co-chair of Gairloch High School parent council.

The parent council members explain that their schools have found themselves relying on scarcely-found part-time teachers just to keep things running.

“Reliance on increasingly hard-to-find supply teachers is taking its toll on core teaching staff. Part-time staff are frequently putting in full-time hours to make the situation work.”

The open letter states. “We are increasingly concerned for their wellbeing – the situation is unsustainable.”

One of the proposed solutions for these issues has been the remote learning with Virtual Academy classes, provided by University of the Highlands and Islands.

However, parents have found this is not the fix-all solution it may be presented as, citing how multiple courses have been discontinued halfway through the year.

Chair of Ullapool High School parent council, Seoras Burnett explained: “While virtual courses are clearly vital to broaden our curriculum, this cannot be done on the cheap and without proper planning. Virtual course provision requires better investment to provide quality, consistent virtual learning with resourced support staff in schools.

“All four schools face similar issues and it’s clear that these challenges increase dramatically as school roles decline. The direction of travel is clear and it’s a downward trajectory caused by underinvestment that has to be reversed.”

Seoras Burnett, chair of Ullapool High School parent council.
Seoras Burnett, chair of Ullapool High School parent council.

Another area struggling to keep their head above water, according to the open letter, is learning support staff.

“Our learning support staff are having to work through lunches and breaks in order to support our high dependency pupils,” the open letter claims. “This is having an unavoidable impact on other pupils with learning support needs. Pupils are falling behind in subjects simply because there are increasingly no learning assistants to support them in class.

“Despite the heroic efforts of our teaching staff to find creative solutions to the funding crisis, the situation in our schools has gone beyond breaking point. Our staff and school community are not in a position to give more than they are already giving.

“The current system is failing our pupils.”

As stated in their open letter, the four parent councils are calling for the provision of:

  • Exemption from the staffing formula for our small schools, and funding to increase staffing capacity in order to provide a guaranteed core curriculum for all pupils.
  • Funding based on individual need for all pupils who require additional learning support.
  • Permanent teaching positions and stability of teaching provision for our staff and pupils.
  • Investment in quality, reliable distance learning courses and support staff to offer a wider subject choice and enable pupils to study their chosen subjects.
  • More attractive ‘relocation’ packages and affordable accommodation for teachers considering a move to the remote Highlands and incentives for supply teachers.

The open letter concludes: “Previous attempts at raising these issues with Highland Council and the Scottish Government have failed to produce an acceptable response.”

The full open letter can be found on SaveOurRuralSchools.com


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