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Highland Council refuses to declare an 'emergency' despite 67 schools rated 'poor' – instead blames war in Ukraine, Brexit and Liz Truss

By Scott Maclennan

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The poor state of Charleston Academy.
The poor state of Charleston Academy.

The “business as usual” approach at Highland Council has blamed the war in Ukraine, Brexit and a former Prime Minister to avoid declaring a "school estate emergency" despite having the worst education buildings in Scotland.

Two councillors from Aird and Loch Ness faced-off after Conservative's Helen Crawford called for the declaration of an emergency while the SNP’s Emma Knox opposed it.

The motion rejected by the SNP-Independent administration, including changes by Lib Dem group leader Alasdair Christie, called for the declaration of a “school estate emergency” and an emergency action plan.

It wanted the council leader to write to First Minister Humza Yousaf outlining the “urgent need” for more cash to reduce the 71 per cent disparity between Highland schools and the rest of the country.

And it sought meetings with relevant Scottish and UK government ministers to try to address the problem.

Worst schools in Scotland

That problem is that Highland Council has by far the worst school estate in Scotland. Of 167 primaries, just 27 are rated A (good); 84 are considered B (satisfactory); and 56 are graded as C (poor).

That means more than 33 per cent of primaries in the region are considered to be in a “poor” condition.

And of the 29 secondary schools, 10 are considered A (good); eight are considered B (satisfactory); but 11 are rated as C (poor), so more than 37 per cent are “poor”.

But Cllr Knox's amendment sought to retain the council’s status quo position that there is no cash for upgrades and acknowledged “the unacceptable condition of parts of the school estate” while trying to “identify external sources of funding” and “to explore income generating initiatives".

They include reviewing what can be made out of tourism, council assets, charges and enforcement (like parking charges), early payment incentives or late payment penalties as well as energy generation.

Cllr Emma Knox. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Cllr Emma Knox. Picture: Callum Mackay.

Ukraine, Brexit and Liz Truss?

The vote is unlikely to persuade parents, pupils or staff of the local authority’s determination to actually find a solution given the administration already ditched 10 school projects last September.

Cllr Knox defended the administration’s record citing the problems caused by Ukraine, Brexit and Liz Truss but failed to recognise that the schools at the top of the council’s wish list have been in a dire condition since long before any of those events.

She glossed over the SNP government’s refusal of LEIP funding to the Highlands while attacking Westminster capital investment cuts.

She said: “I have been advocating for schools since I was first elected, we thought we were there, the capital funds were allocated, plans for Beauly [Primary] and Charleston [Academy] were already well under way.

“Then the economic landscape completely changed due to a devastating combination of events including the war in Ukraine, Brexit and [former Prime Minister] Liz Truss’s catastrophic budget which crashed the economy.”

She concluded saying that the motion simply does not address the issue of the school estate: “This motion does not provide any alternative solutions for us as a council.”

Councillor Helen Crawford outside Beauly Primary School. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Councillor Helen Crawford outside Beauly Primary School. Picture: James Mackenzie.

'I'm asking us to raise our voices'

Cllr Crawford said: “One thing I would say, Cllr Knox, regarding your amendment, which I'm not able to accept, is that it is business as usual – that's the problem.

“I would maybe just point out one thing, one more item, and it is what happened just before Christmas in the Western Isles which has one combined primary and secondary school – just one – that is ranked C poor for condition. We have 67.

“Off the back of that one school, they managed to secure a meeting with the cabinet secretary for education. Why not us? That's why I'm asking us to raise our voices and each of us to champion this motion.

“I'm not going to come back on political points scoring – I'm just not interested in it.”

Councillor Andrew Jarvie.
Councillor Andrew Jarvie.

'A school for children with special needs that is not fully wheelchair accessible'

Cllr Andrew Jarvie in backing the motion argued there would be value in introducing the issues faced in the Highlands to high-ranking politicians.

“Certainly, if a cabinet minister were to visit and even a school like St Clements, as I did a number of years ago, when the issue first arose that visit in itself would be the most compelling thing," he said.

“Because in the Highlands you have a school for children with special needs that is not fully wheelchair accessible – that on its own is a gigantic problem.

“I was disappointed to hear most of Cllr Knox’s arguments where it seems to mention Westminster more than the Scottish Government or indeed us here in the council ourselves. I just don't see how that helps anything."

He also queried why the debate was turned so negatively and focussed on what could not be done instead of what could be achieved.

“Why is this discussion that we're having around the schools not about how interest rates have come down significantly?" he asked.

"They're back below the point actually where they were when this capital plan was initially put together, it's actually more affordable at this point in time.

“So why are we talking about what we can’t afford instead of looking at what we can afford?”

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