Amid the madding crowds

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Many schools face overcrowding problems, but those in Aberdeenshire are at bursting point. Seonag MacKinnon reports

Alice in Wonderland is too big for the cottage. She has to sit with her head bowed and stick an arm out the window and a foot up the chimney in order to fit in. At many schools children have a surreal experience on a daily basis, trying to fit into buildings that are too small for the school roll. But nowhere is the problem as acute as in Aberdeenshire, where the oil boom continues to fuel economic and population growth in the commuter belt of Aberdeen.

Depute director of education Bruce Robertson lists plans for future developments - 700 new houses at Kintore, 320 at Newmachar, 400 at Ellon, and more than 700 at Inverurie, all of which will add to the existing pressures on schools. Portlethen Academy is already operating at 122 per cent capacity. Kintore primary is expected to reach 125 per cent capacity by 2004 and 59-pupil Logie Durno is operating at 309 per cent. The situation is likely to get worse.

The higher echelons of Aberdeenshire Council have been lobbying central government for many years in order to embark on multi-million pound building schemes. Robertson even raises the prospect of parents using the courts to force through school building programmes.

"We have presented the minister with a list of Pounds 30 million of priority projects," he says. "It is not a wish list. It is what we need to do to meet our statutory obligations." Top priority is a Pounds 4 million replacement primary at Banff and construction of an Pounds 11 million secondary with primary school extension at Oldmeldrum to take the pressure off Inverurie Academy and Ellon. Reluctantly the Liberal Democrat-led council has come to accept that it has to go down the publicprivate partnership route for capital spending and has put in a bid for Pounds 15 million.

Its problem is that under the formula for distributing capital allocations to authorities, Aberdeenshire is due only Pounds 7-8 million. The challenge has been to persuade the Scottish Office that fast growing Aberdeenshire is a special case at a time when other authorities are also seeking to borrow more because of a huge backlog of repairs to existing buildings.

Education officials throughout Scotland deal daily with complaints about dilapidated Victorian buildings, asbestos, mice or leaking wood-framed Sixties schools. Hotspots of localised demand around the country also mean that Aberdeenshire schools are not unique in seeing Portakabin-type buildings colonise playgrounds or annexes spring up on separate sites.

Joan Orskov, who chairs the education committee, believes Aberdeenshire gets a raw deal: "Other authorities have half-empty schools. They have the option of amalgamating and selling a site to put towards a new building. We've got nothing to close.

"There is a misunderstanding about this area. People think because of its oil it must be wealthy but although we are a wealth-creating area, this revenue is controlled by central government. We have scratched and scraped and penny-pinched, and it's got to the point where we just cannot deliver.

"When you almost have to fight your way through a corridor you have to stop and ask yourself if this is a healthy atmosphere for children."

Councillors and officials are particularly resentful about the pressures on schools because the Scottish Office has overturned the council's refusal to grant house builders planning permission on the grounds of lack of infrastructure. And developers cannot be compelled to share costs of infrastructure such as a play park or school extension.

In reply to the council's complaints, a Scottish Office spokeswoman said the education department fully appreciated that Aberdeenshire Council found itself in a difficult position with a rising population in some areas: "The council is of course aware of the formula arrangements for distributing capital allocations to authorities - these have been agreed with Convention of Scottish Local Authorities of whose education committee Cllr Orskov is a member, and this ensures that Aberdeenshire gets an appropriate share.

"The Government has already announced additional capital resources for school building work over a five-year period. In addition, the comprehensive spending review (the chancellor's massive audit of all Government spending) is looking carefully at the issue of school buildings."

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