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Our Man in Holyrood By Fergus Ewing: Education challenges can be different in the Highlands

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This week in Holyrood we took evidence on the budget for education services in Scotland for schools, colleges and universities.

We heard from the auditors – the Auditor General and Accounts Commission.

I used the opportunity to ask how they assess whether the budget for these services in the Highlands is sufficient, given the extra cost of funding education in the Highlands as a largely rural council.

The Highland Council area has 203 primary schools and 29 high schools. In tertiary education, the UHI operates as a hub within its Inverness base but also has excellent facilities throughout the north and the islands. So we need, in the Highlands as opposed to the central belt, to pay for and maintain far more buildings, and employ more teachers in schools with smaller rolls.

I also pointed out that the challenges facing the council and teachers can be different in rural Scotland. We have many, many more schools, many of which urgently require to be replaced and all need repaired. Especially some of the buildings from the ‘60s.

In smaller-roll rural schools it is hard to cover all subjects, for example physics, chemistry and biology. For some future careers, for example becoming a doctor, I think it is essential to take these science topics. The schools and the council work very hard to overcome these inherent challenges.

The written report that the Auditor General and Accounts Commission produced as evidence extended to 149 numbered paragraphs and 49 pages. Yet, it made no reference at all to extra rural costs of running education, nor, so far as I could see, did it actually mention the word “rural”!

Witnesses responded with a positive desire to address these concerns. I am now following up their evidence session with a letter to each of them to ask how, precisely, they propose to do that.

I believe that the Highland Council and the schools in our part of Scotland do a good job for our children. I can say that in over 22 years as your MSP, I have received very, very few complaints about the quality of teaching. There is a terrific amount of good work done daily in helping our children get the best from their school years, enabling them to achieve their potential.

I shall also continue to work with officials at the council to see that we get the best financial deal to ensure that our children’s – and teachers’ – needs can be met.

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