John Swinney opens community-built Primary School

STRONTIAN PRIMARY OPENING John Swinney officlally opens the new Strontian Primary School helped by the young pupils. Picture Iain Ferguson,

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A strong community spirit was highlighted during the official opening ceremony of the new Strontian Primary School by Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney.

The village of 400 people financed and constructed the school building after Highland Council said the previous one was unfit for purpose in 2012.

This unique approach to build the £930,000 building was taken after the community rejected Highland Council’s preferred solution to make improvements to the existing building.

John Swinney, also Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, spoke at the unveiling of the plaque commemorating the official opening on Tuesday.

Missing a cabinet meeting in Edinburgh for the event, he said: ‘It is important to be here today because in a sense today symbolises something fundamental about Scottish education. Wherever our families and young people live, they must be able to access world class education.

‘To this community, that has wrestled with all the challenges of school buildings and facilities, I pay the warmest of tributes for deciding they deserved to have access to world class educational facilities.’

Mr Swinney then took a tour of the new primary school with the community that helped create it and talked with staff and pupils.

The previous building did not have a playground but now pupils have an enclosed area for football and basketball as well as a grassy hill for pupils to play on.

Mr Swinney continued: ‘If you go back to 2007, about 61 per cent of young people were educated in good or satisfactory buildings in Scotland. That figure is now 87 per cent. We have made huge progress but obviously there’s a way to go. Developments such as this help by enabling us to see enhancements in the school infrastructure.’

Building began on the school in October 2017, with teachers and pupils moving in almost exactly a year later.

It was built to be easily converted into affordable housing as the council requested a break point after 10 years with four buildings connected by easily removable corridors.

Jamie McIntyre, chairman of Strontian Community School Buildings, is involved in the community and with three children who have been through the school, has a personal connection to the project. He said: ‘Before the school was considered in this capacity, we were meeting with the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust, looking at the affordable housing scheme in development. One of the party observed that the three house terrace near to the high school would not need much added to make quite a handsome school. Someone said ‘how much to make a school in the open space?’ and we all laughed. It was many months, if not years until that idea resurfaced as a serious proposal.’

Also a director of the area’s community-run hydro scheme, Mr McIntyre has been through the process of a near million pound project before. He continued: ‘The things we came across this time were not entirely unexpected. Our board is very strong. We have a civil engineer, a joiner, so a good mix of skills to take on a project like this.

‘I would be open to giving people advice – not on a professional basis – but the community is amazing at networking so we’re always contacting other communities about different types of projects.

‘I’m sure if this model were of interest, we would share our thoughts with them.’

Andrew Baxter, councillor for Fort William and Ardnamurchan, represented the Highland Council at the unveiling. He said: ‘This opening is not about us as politicians, but about our young people. It is also about our teachers who now have a place to teach that is fit for the modern era.

‘It is a celebration of what a small highland community can achieve – community participation and empowerment – and may it be a model for many others across Scotland.’

Ardnamurchan High School head teacher and acting head of Strontian Primary School Christopher Millar-Craig said it is hoped to integrate the schools into a 3 to 18 years campus within the year.