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Nicky Marr: Impact of school woes is felt by our next generation

By Nicky Marr

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School projects have been impacted by funding woes.
School projects have been impacted by funding woes.

Are your kids going to school today? If you are reading this on a weekday, I sincerely hope so. But it is by no means a given.

Because added to the usual reasons for kids being off school – sickness and dental appointments – there are plenty of other obstacles preventing your child from getting the education they deserve.

Strikes by teaching staff, janitors, or school support workers will impact their education. As will a crumbling, leaking, mouse-infested, damp school, one without PE facilities, decent classrooms, or a working science block. But in 2023?

The shopping list for new schools and essential repairs is longer than it’s ever been. And parents, teachers, and communities who were hoping for good news from last week’s full meeting of Highland Council, during which the capital budget was debated for three hours, will have been left sorely disappointed.

As the debate unfolded, it transpired that the cost of urgent capital projects adds up to £566 million, and the council only has access to £343 million. That leaves a shortfall of £223 million, putting 10 promised school build projects beyond the reach of the public purse.

That’s awful. New schools aren’t a vanity project, or a ‘desirable’ on the wish-list. The impact sub-standard buildings have on the education of our children is well documented, and apparently, a Scottish Government concern.

In the words of Aird and Loch Ness councillor Chris Ballance, an estimated 12,764 pupils in Highland – almost half of all of them – are being educated in schools that are graded as either “poorly suited to education” or with “major defects”.

With not enough money to go round, each school, parent council, and family will be hoping that any available capital will be coming their way, at the expense of others. Such is human nature – when resources are stretched, we fight for our own.

But this isn’t a problem that Highland (or indeed any) Council can fix on its own. Those suggesting that the £223 million shortfall should be borrowed are overlooking that interest rates are the highest they’ve been for a decade. Financing borrowing for 25 years will stretch future revenue budgets even further.

In addition, the cost of building materials has risen exponentially in the past few years, and there’s a shortage of construction workers to fulfil contracts.

There needs to be a wider recognition of the impact of our crumbling school estate on the education of the next generation, not just by local authorities, but by the Scottish Government. What else are they spending money on, if not health and education? Certainly not transport infrastructure, that’s for sure.

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Digging into the small-print of the day-long Highland Council debate, there was mention of LEIP. It’s a £2 billion Scottish Government fund called the Learning Estates Investment Programme which matches 50/50 with local authorities the cost of upgrading or replacing schools.

LEIP is currently in stage 3, and local authorities across Scotland are still waiting for the 2023 decision to be announced. Included for consideration for Highland LEIP funding are replacement schools at Beauly, Dunvegan and Park Primary; a replacement in Dingwall for St Clement’s School; and a new school at Tornagrain.

It is not known when an announcement will be made by the Scottish Government, but if it goes our way, perhaps not all will be lost. But can you let us know soon, please? This is vitally important.

Can I offer a small crumb of comfort? Maybe it’s not all bad news.

The Sunday Times has just published its list of the best-performing secondary schools in Scotland, and – if academic results are what you are most interested in – seven of the top 100 were in Highland.

If our current 16 and 17-year-olds can achieve top Higher results despite three years of Covid, strikes, and crumbling buildings, perhaps they are more resilient than we give them credit for.

But is knowing that the roof won’t fall down tomorrow really too much to ask?

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