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February 13, 2024

A culture of cooperation

Highland Council, like most councils, has a financial blackhole that they are struggling to resolve. Postponing its programme of school modernisation may be one solution and that prospect has pushed some communities to consider following the example of the Strontian parents in Ardnamurchan who built their own school and now lease it back to the council. The Strontian community’s view back then was that if they lost their school, it would only accelerate their declining population. Initially sceptical, Highland Council were finally convinced by the merits of the community’s argument. It’s the kind of council-community partnership we need more of.

Caroline Wilson, The Herald

Highland communities denied upgrades for crumbling schools are considering following the lead of the enterprising villagers who made history by building their own.

Scotland’s first and only community-built school welcomed pupils through its shiny new doors five years ago in Strontian, in the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

The £1million required was generated mainly through a hefty bank loan and community shares after parents flatly rejected Highland Council’s solution to sorting out their ageing primary.

Proposals were shaped by grim projections suggesting that the school roll would reduce sharply in coming years and a temporary solution of modular units had been suggested.

Jamie McIntyre, chairman of  Strontian Community School Building Ltd (SCSB) said it had recently been approached by two communities who were told planned improvements to their own school buildings have been put on hold.

Highland Council announced last year that 10 school rebuild or modernisation projects will be delayed as it negotiates a £127million budget black hole over the next four years.

They include St Clement’s in Dingwall, for children with special educational needs, where children were said to be learning in buildings that leak with “unreliable heating, no disabled access in part of the school, no dedicated dining space and no medical room”.

“The council was saying to us your school roll is shrinking, you are going to go from two teachers to one,” said Mr McIntyre, whose children have now left the primary.

“We read between the lines. Losing [the school] was unacceptable to us. We thought if we don’t build a good school it’s going to threaten the viability of our community.”

There was precedent for such an ambitious project in Strontian, where lead was mined in the 1700s and used to make ammunition for Britain’s war against France.

The community had already taken on – and completed – challenging projects including an £850,000 community hydro scheme. 

It had also worked with the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust (HSCHT) to deliver a much-needed affordable housing project in the village.

Working with HSCHT, the community came up with a proposal to build a school and lease it to Highland Council.

The local authority agreed but with the proviso that the High School, built under PPI, would becoming available to them in ten years’ time and the suggestion primary pupils would be transferred there. The only opponents were those who felt the plan was absolving Highland Council of its statutory duty to provide adequate school buildings.

The community secured a bank loan with Triodos Bank and set up a Community Benefit Society (CBS) selling over £155,000 in shares to local people.

The finance package was completed through a grant from Foundation Scotland and £10k in local 

Work began on site in October 2017 and the school was officially opened by John Swinney in 2019 a year after welcoming pupils. When the primary opened it had a roll of 30 but this has now dropped to 20 pupils, which Mr McIntyre attributes to a lack of housing.

“One of the reasons we built the school was to make sure families had access to a good school because we were conscious that an inadequate school is going to put people off,” he said. 

“The surrounding villages at the time had all had newly built schools. We realised that people with a choice were not going to come here.” 

He believes more rural areas should follow their lead and can learn from their experience.

“It would be easier for another community to do it now, we did learn a lot of lessons,” he said, mentioning that the community has not missed a single mortgage payment.

“All we have done is take the somewhat controversial PFI model and turn it into a CFI model where either we don’t make any profit or if we do make a profit that stays within the community.

“Once our mortgage is paid off in 15 years, the rental income will be used for the good of the community.

“It’s slightly surprising that it hasn’t been replicated. 

“We’ve had contact from a couple of the schools who were cut from [Highland Council’s] list and don’t want to do what we did but think it might be the only way.”

He said the community is hopeful that the primary school will have a long future in the village despite the possibility that Highland Council could terminate the lease after 10 years and move pupils into the secondary. 

“Legally they could leave after ten years but we’ve still got five years of mortgage to pay,” said Mr McInnes.

 “It would be a blow but the building was designed to be converted into something else, most likely affordable housing.

“If the council does decide to do this, they will find a groundswell of opposition and I don’t honestly think they can overcome that.”