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DIY on the Isle of Skye

Spring 1993 was a hectic time for Portree village playgroup in Skye, off the north-west coast of Scotland. Their local hall, shared with the mother-and-toddler group, was about to fail new social work standards, leaving them homeless and the village of 2,500 people with no pre-school service.

But what they did have was Pounds 10,000 tucked in their wallets, the result of fund-raising efforts over the years, and a steely voluntary-sector determination. Backed with these, Mairi MacDonald, then playgroup chairperson, drove round the village looking for land to build their own centre.

The ground she, and the other half-dozen parents, identified was owned by Skye and Lochalsh district council. It agreed to lease it if they got planning permission and all that remained was a small matter of finding the Pounds 65,000 building costs.

Remarkably, within five months the group succeeded in establishing a purpose-built nursery from scratch - money, design, planning and building. By the August, the playgroup and mother-and-toddler group were housed in new premises while two months later the centre accepted its first nursery children.

In a matter of months, the parents had taken a voluntary playgroup and transformed it into a non-profit-making company, offering a comprehensive range of pre-school services, employing one-full time member of staff (a trained primary teacher) and six part-timers. "Things just snowballed," Mrs MacDonald recalled.

First stop in the grand plan was the local enterprise company, which provided information about other sources of support, practical business advice and Pounds 15,000.

Significantly, it put them in touch with the European Union's Leader scheme, which aims to attract women back into work or training by encouraging improved child care. It was the Leader conditions that changed the outlook.

"We had to provide an area to allow mothers to go back to work or to get jobs, so we provided a creche," Mrs MacDonald says. With Pounds 12,000 from Highland regional council's development fund for rural projects, the locally raised Pounds 27,000 was matched by the EU.

Mrs MacDonald says the nursery and creche began as an extra since there was no evidence of a demand, apart from social work information about the existence of childminders.

Now, two years on, 50 children attend the creche and nursery, which opens 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, 50 weeks of the year, with some parents travelling up to 20 miles.

Forty children also attend the playgroup four mornings a week and 15 to 20 children, along with their parents, attend the mother-and-toddler group.

Fees are not a problem, according to Mrs MacDonald, who is now chairperson of the nursery and company director. Both voluntary groups are charged rental while the day care is Pounds 2 an hour to parents, a sum based on local childminders' fees.

For some, establishing the project from such small beginnings would be more than enough. But not for the Portree group. Improving services for several groups has highlighted the lack of provision for pre-school children with special needs. Three such children currently attend on three afternoons a week.

Mrs MacDonald said: "There are another nine children with special needs and we're trying to raise Pounds 80,000 for a purpose-built extension for them and their parents. We've got Pounds 4,600 so far, Pounds 4,000 of which is revenue from the nursery. The nearest specialist provision for them would be more than 100 miles away in Inverness."

Who is to say Portree nursery will not manage it?

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