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Farr too far for Altnaharra

Three years ago, Altnaharra primary was mothballed because its roll had dropped from a peak of 11 pupils in 1992 to only one.

In August, the two-room school in the far north of Sutherland will reopen to admit three pupils to primary classes and two to nursery. The five children are from four local families. By 2009, it is anticipated that there will be six primary-age children.

The decision by Highland Council's education, culture and sport committee has been hailed by the local community as a recognition of the transport difficulties for children as young as four who faced a 50-mile round trip on single-track roads to reach the nearest school at Farr.

Highland's policy of "mothballing" rural schools to see if populations rise in the future has also been contrasted with the approach of other authorities which have opted for permanent closures.

The three primary pupils will be entering P6, P3 and P1 in August and will be taught by Kirstin MacGruer, who lives in Lairg and is transferring from Lairg primary. Isobel Gillies, headteacher of Lairg primary, will manage both schools under a special cluster arrangement.

Miss Gillies will spend two days a week at Altnaharra and three days at Lairg, where the roll is set to fall from 70 pupils to 59 at the end of term. She will no longer have class teaching commitments. A replacement teacher will be required at Lairg and the staffing costs have been put at pound;44,000.

Another member of staff - a non-teacher - is expected to be appointed to cover nursery provision and a specialist nursery teacher will visit once a week to offer curricular support.

Miss Gillies, whose teaching career has spanned a big Glasgow school, a two-teacher school and her current four-teacher school, said: "A lot of people hear 'three children' and think it's an easy option, but it's three completely different sets of work that the children have to have prepared for them and it's hard work to keep them interested. They have to be really self-motivated."

She said that Altnaharra school was surprisingly well-equipped. "It has survived extremely well because the local authority turned the heating on during the winter."

Sandy Mackay, the local councillor, said: "People are delighted for several reasons - the main one being the distance that four and five-year-old children had to travel." Altnaharra Estate recently changed hands and the new owner is keen to increase local employment. However, the lack of a local school had proved a disincentive to young families.

"If there is no school no one wants to know, so maybe the reopening of the school will help in the repopulation of the area," Mr Mackay said.

Alison Magee, Highland's convener, said: "It was a sad day in 2002 when we had to mothball it. Many people must have thought it would never open again."

Bruce Robertson, director of education, culture and sport, said: "This demonstrates that our policy of mothballing schools rather than the blunt instrument of closure, in rural areas, is working."

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