Rural life 'killed off' by closure of schools

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
There have been tears and anger in battles to save Scottish schools. But how harmful is the loss of a school?

"We miss the kids, the voices," says retired fisherman William Fleming. The 80-year-old lives across the road from the old Cousland Primary, where the street used to come to life whenever pupils bustled in or out. The school, just outside Dalkeith, closed in 2007, leaving a conspicuous silence.

A couple of hundred yards away, 67-year-old postmaster Ken Carnie is blunt: Cousland became a "dead village". The school was a social magnet, drawing people out of their homes, he says. Now people don't walk through Cousland. "Why should they? There's nothing to go to."

On a muggy summer's day, Cousland is the definition of a sleepy village. Some 10 miles away, Edinburgh is packed with festival-season hordes; but here, in more than two hours, I see fewer than a dozen people.

"It's amazing how many people have never heard of Cousland," says blacksmith James Fleming, whose centuries-old smiddy, in this age of online enterprise, is the only business visible from the roadside.

When it emerged, in 2004, that Cousland Primary and four other Midlothian village schools would close, there was dismay. Jennifer McDougall, 41, was one of the protestors who fought to keep the school, which was thought to have existed in some form since the early 1800s. Her sunny demeanour twists into a frown at her memory of a council decision she calls a "fait accompli".

The school brought people into each other's orbit, she says. A French cafe enterprise project, serving croissants and juices, gathered villagers together under the early summer sun. It could take her an age to walk home to the other end of the village after picking up her son Callan (P2), so many people did she see.

Adults felt more comfortable telling off other people's misbehaving children in those days, says Miss McDougall. Now, with school-gate chats a quaint memory, people struggle to connect child to parent.

There is still a village gala at the end of June, designed to coincide with the school year's last gasp, but without a push from teachers, children do not get involved as much.

Cousland's 28 pupils - down from 80 at times in the past - were scattered to several schools; six to the independent sector. There are fewer organised activities at the weekly youth club in the village hall, now a place just to hang out with friends you might otherwise not see.

Shona Sharp's twin sons Corbin and Beric were in P4 when the school closed. They used to enjoy the freedom of working with children of different ages, and a small class of 13 or 14 where the teacher - also the head - could wander off at tangents.

Their current school, Tynewater Primary, five miles away in Pathhead, is very good, says the nursery nurse, but in a fairly boisterous class of about 30, lessons have to be more rigidly structured.

The closure of Cousland was justified on educational grounds, says Mrs Sharp, but her sons became less enthused about new classes where they could predict what they would be doing on a certain day: "It took them a while to adjust - about a year."

Postmaster Mr Carnie, who has lived in the village for 35 years, views the closure as part of a decades-long centralisation that has been wiping out places to have a "chat and blether". He has made a stand for 19 years by running a post office in his home (the day's ironing is visible behind the stamps and postal orders). But with fewer opportunities to bump into neighbours, it is harder to keep an OAPs' group or a poetry group going.

Miss McDougall is more upbeat, portraying Cousland as a proud, resilient place underpinned by many residents whose local connection goes back generations. There is lots happening to engender common purpose, she says - a history group, a campaign against an opencast mine, a thriving Women's Rural Institute - all detailed in a spry village website. Her son, meanwhile, is about to go into P6 and has enjoyed Tynewater Primary, although he misses his old teachers and not being able to walk to school.

Outside the utilitarian 1960s school building, which Midlothian Council has failed to sell, nettles and dock leaves sprout haphazardly. But beyond the unkempt vegetation and the loss of pleasing ambient noise, Mr Fleming, with the perspective of 37 years in Cousland, plays down the loss of the school. "There's still a lot of activity in the village," he says. "I wouldn't say it's had a big impact."

At the other end of the village, tucked away round a corner, is a cul-de- sac of identikit brick homes, far removed from Cousland's traditional old stone cottages. These were planned a few years before the school closed. Campaigners hoped that new families would bolster the roll enough to keep Cousland Primary open. But these houses have the driveways of a car- reliant suburban estate, and school runs are measured in miles, not yards.

People want to live in Cousland, school or no school. Whether they spend as much time with each other as their forebears is another matter.

Driving 100 miles north to another scene of school closures, I find Dun difficult to locate. Type "Dun" and "Angus" into Google and little appears about the farming community midway between Montrose and Brechin. Pay a visit, and not everyone agrees where the parish begins and ends: Dun is not a village, but a golden sprawl of barley and wheat fields, punctuated by the occasional house.

The local school, along with the nearby church, had literally given Dun a place on the map since 1860. Together, they were the community's "life and soul", said protesters against Angus Council's recommendation in 2004 to close the 17-pupil school.

"The closure of the school was just another nail in the coffin of the rural way of life," says Fiona Doig, whose two daughters were at Dun Primary until it closed in 2005. "You now simply have houses in the countryside where people come home to eat and sleep."

When one of the girls makes reference to a friend at Dun Primary, Mrs Doig struggles to recall seeing the child's mum since they were bonded in protest five years ago.

The impact on her girls - Verity, 16, and Madeleine, 14, - is less clear- cut. "It was quite traumatic for the children," she says, recalling a close-knit group. But they resettled quickly: "I think children are quite resilient. They do cope with change better than you expect."

"It was upsetting at the time," says Verity. "I was sad - all your friends were going to different schools." But moving to the far bigger Hillside Primary for P7 - with a roll of around 160 - helped her adjust to the daunting scale of secondary school.

Mrs Doig has pinned all her remaining hopes on the kirk, just down the road from the old school: "Everything in the community is arranged through the church. If the church goes, then that will be it - I just don't think there will be anything else that pulls people together."

Community council chairman John Sutcliffe, a farmer who lives just up a bumpy track from the old school, has a different view. The closure was sad but inevitable, he says, given a sharp fall in the number of children living in Dun. He attributes this largely to young people's reluctance to go into farming, as it precludes a social life.

He believes the community remains strong - "People still look over your fence and ask how you are" - and recalls that little happened in the school after the home-time bell, a point made forcibly by Angus Council at the time.

Historically, Dun used to be a stopping point: John Knox must have cut an awe-inspiring presence when he preached from Dun Church's 12-feet-high pulpit; and Queen Victoria's train would stop overnight at Bridge of Dun station on its way to Balmoral.

Bill Aitken's memories do not stretch that far back, but at 75, having moved into the parish aged three weeks, he has a better view of the march of time than most. He went to Dun Primary from 1939-46 with about 80 others, and the adrenaline rush of shoving on his gas mask during drills is ingrained in his memory. He has the measured forbearance typical of the wartime generation. "As long as folk like myself are alive, I know we'll keep Dun going," he says.

Dun Church is not another domino waiting to fall, he insists. He attends the weekly service, despite moving four miles away to Montrose many years ago, with 20 to 40 others, but it is a doughty congregation with remarkable fund-raising abilities - even non-churchgoers do not want the church to disappear.

The church hall, meanwhile, has big, colourful collages celebrating "God's glory", made by youth club members, a vibrant reminder that children do still get together.

Mr Aitken's views on the school fall somewhere between the pining of Mrs Doig and the hard-nosed pragmatism of Mr Sutcliffe. A former chairman of the parent teachers' association at Dun, he believes Angus Council had made its mind up long before the official decision. But much as he opposed the closure and criticised the council's handling of the consultation, he concedes it probably had no choice.

"Dun was changing anyway," he says. He saw the 1960s Beeching cuts close down Bridge of Dun station (later revived with a tourist steam train for enthusiasts) and car ownership surge. North Sea oil brought "posh" families to the area, who wanted their pick of schools. Families who had been there for decades were having two children, where their parents had six.

The regular dances once held at the school became a distant memory, and there were fewer and fewer concerts. Plenty of people fought hard to keep the school, he remembers, but others were unperturbed by its demise.

"If more folk had kept their bairns at the school, it would still be there," says Mr Aitken. "There weren't enough people fighting for it."

Years later, the closure of Dun Primary seems less a catalyst for change, more a symbol of change that had been brewing for decades.

"Maybe," even Mrs Doig concedes, "there's just a different kind of society evolving."

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