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Island schools on ebb tide

VILLAGE primary schools are one of the characteristics of the educational landscape. But maybe not for much longer.

The Western Isles this week returned to its least favourite agenda with proposals to re-examine the number of schools needed for a rapidly diminishing P1-S2 population, which is set to fall by around a fifth over the next 10 years.

In a paper for the new education committee, Murdo Macleod, education director, warned that the inspectorate and Audit Scotland had highlighted the extent of overcapacity in January. Currently there are 2,173 pupils in primary and 1,983 in secondary.

"In an urban context a total roll of this order could be accommodated in four or five primary schools and two or three secondary schools. This compares with the Western Isles numbers of 39 primary schools and 11 secondary schools. Consequently, there are a large number of schools in relation to the size of the pupil population," Mr Macleod states.

He suggests that the ideal number could be somewhere between the two extremes, which implies a significant closure programme but adds: "If we are going to do it, it must be done in a rational, properly planned way."

He said the programme had already begun with communities in the Point and Westside areas each agreeing to replace three schools with one as part of the council's pound;30 million public private partnership (PPP) initiative.

Over the past 15 years, the number of primaries has been cut from 57 to 39 and over the past 10 years the number of secondaries has fallen from 16 to 11.

Mr Macleod said that HMI wanted the authority to revise its policy of only closing schools where it had the consent of the community or where numbers have fallen to single figures or where schools are "not germane" to any particular community.

He reminds members that the council in 1975 inherited "massive problems" with the location of school buildings, many of which were no longer related to their communities. Facilities had improved and some schools were now provided on an area rather than village basis but "there is still some considerable distance to go".

Many of the outlying schools are proving costly to maintain and were not designed or equipped to provide a modern education. "They were based on minimalist concepts with provision limited to basic classrooms and ancillary accommodation and services," the director notes.

Other factors are high pupil and staffing costs.

A seminar for councillors is planned for the autumn.

Leader, page 22

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