SENIOR Highland councillors are set to intensify the national wrangle over rural school closures by pledging a secure future and revamped buildings for remote and island primaries. They have vowed to regenerate fragile communities by making schools the fulcrum of survival.
As neighbouring authorities in Argyll and Bute and Moray remain embroiled in highly-charged closure programmes ahead of the Scottish Parliament's investigation into rural schools, Andy Anderson, Highland's SNP education convener, reiterated the promise he made to the TES Scotland a year ago.
"We are not in the business of closing schools - totally, utterly," he repeated this week, following a fact-finding visit to run-down, remote, single-teacher primaries in Rum, Canna and Knoydart.
Drew Millar, Independent education vice-convener, added: "We do not want another Clearance."
Four primaries might have been targets for closure but have remained open. Statutory nursery provision for three and four- year-olds is pushing the case for their existence.
Mr Anderson said small schools had been badly served and now merited equal treatment. He will try to persuade councillors to re-prioritise the refurbishment programme over the next two to three years and press the Scottish Executive for up to pound;1 million to boost the building funds for around a dozen "fragile" schools.
He said: "It's obvious from the visits that there's been a distinct lack of investment in he infrastructure and fabric of these schools for over a decade or more. In Highland, we want the school to be central to the development of these remote communities and we're going to have to find the money to upgrade the facilities to meet the demands of the new millennium. These schools should be treated as a special case."
Mr Anderson continued: "In urban areas, parents would just not accept some of the conditions we've seen. If it's not good enough for urban areas, it's equally not good enough for these communities. If we upgrade the buildings and there's a good school, that should encourage prospective families to come and settle."
He believed ministers should focus on the plight of rural schools in the second round of the comprehensive spending review. Highland already has an outstanding bill of more than pound;80 million for essential school repairs.
Mr Anderson accepted educating pupils in remote schools can cost up to eight times more than Highland's average - already higher than the Scottish average - but said there was no pressure to shut schools, either for financial or educational reasons. He was not aware of any pressure from public spending watchdogs such as the Accounts Commission.
On the island of Canna, educating the three pupils costs an average of pound;17,000, compared to the Highland average of pound;2,147 and the Scottish average of pound;1,939.
Outlining a new vision, Mr Anderson said such schools should be community learning centres, open most of the day, providing vital Internet access for pupils and adults.