Plea to keep weekly ferry sailings for Small Isles school boarders

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Highland Council

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The Highland Council has been urged to maintain the weekly special ferry sailings for pupils from the Small Isles who board at Mallaig High School and not return to fortnightly crossings.

In October the local authority opted to switch from fortnightly to weekly sailings for the youngsters from Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna following pressure from the parent council and MSP Kate Forbes.

At the time, Highland Council told the Lochaber Times that the weekly schedule would only be temporary arrangement while Covid restrictions at the hostel remained in force.

But it is believed that earlier this summer the local authority notified parents it intended resuming the fortnightly sailings which meant boarding pupils would only get to return home every two weeks.

Kate Forbes and Fort William and Ardnamurchan SNP councillor Niall McLean both want to see the weekly crossings retained.

Ms Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said: ‘Understandably island parents are concerned about the impact on their children’s mental health of being away from home for longer periods of time with no parental oversight or support, especially as the virus is still impacting our lives.

Lochaber constituency MSP Kate Forbes. NO F35 KATE FORBES 02

NO F35 KATE FORBES 02

‘I have previously written to the Highland Council asking if the weekly service could be maintained, at the very least until the consultation period has been completed, and it is imperative the views of pupils and parents in the affected communities are considered before any final decisions are made.’

Councillor McLean added: ‘I strongly question the decision from Highland Council to not allow pupils from the Small Isles who board at Mallaig High School to return home weekly.

‘Only being permitted to go home once a fortnight will impact the children who have to board and their families. We don’t want these families under further stress. A weekly trip home is essential for family life.

NO F34 McLean 01
Councillor Niall McLean.

‘Keeping children from their families, especially at this stage in the pandemic, doesn’t make sense.’

However, Caol and Mallaig councillor Denis Rixson, Liberal Democrats, favoured an option that would satisfy both viewpoints.

Denis Rixson is a Lib Dems councillor who currently represents Caol and Mallaig on The Highland Council. NO F48 Denis Rixson
Denis Rixson is a Liberal Democrat councillor who currently represents Caol and Mallaig on The Highland Council.
NO F48 Denis Rixson

‘I would like to see weekly sailings retained and the hostel remaining open at weekends for those parents and children who prefer to return fortnightly,’ he explained.

‘The council would have to recognise there would be a cost implication for this but it would satisfy both sides of the equation.’

Asked to comment, a Highland Council spokesperson told us: ‘The frequency of the boat service for the pupils who reside on the Small Isles and attend Mallaig High School is currently under review and we hope to have a final decision in the near future.

‘The fortnightly rotation has been the permanent arrangement for a number of years and was temporarily changed to a weekly rotation whilst in-school learning for pupils was restricted due to Covid-19.

‘As the pupils have returned to full time in-school learning the fortnightly rotation will resume.  There are logistical and mitigating factors to consider surrounding the availability of a permanent weekly rotation including poor winter weather, staffing and charter availability, however the welfare of pupils and equity of education will remain a priority as we work in consultation with pupils, parents/carers and staff.’