Lochaber peninsula parents call for teacher budget cut to be reversed

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Highland councillors are being urged to reverse a decision to remove the ‘half-teacher’ format, amidst claims it will have a devastating impact on small rural schools in Lochaber and elsewhere across the wider region.

The plea came after Highland Council  implemented a change to the staff/pupil ratio in its most recent budget which will reduce the number of teachers in schools of 16-19 pupils to one – currently the allocation is one and-a-half.

At this month’s meeting of Ardgour Community Council, members heard that although predicted numbers at Ardgour Primary School mean the school is not in this category,
it is likely to affect it in the future.

Parents of youngsters attending Strontian Primary School recently met with local constituency MSP Kate Forbes to air their concerns about the changes and Ms Forbes took up their worries with council education bosses.

Such is the level of concern, however, that the parent councils from all five peninsular primary schools in Lochaber are now working together in an effort to reverse the change.

Ardgour Community Council vice-chairman Dr Michael Foxley provided the meeting with some background on the original decision to include an extra half teacher for 16-19 pupil schools.

Community councillor Kendra Turnbull, on behalf of Ardgour Primary School Parent Council, asked for a supporting paragraph for the joint document being prepared.

Dr Foxley also suggested contacting the four new ward 21 councillors and asking for their support.

It was the serious problems caused in the late 1980s after the loss of one pupil in a school roll of 20, resulting in the loss of a full-time teacher, that sparked lobbying by then local councillors Duncan Grant, Val MacIver, Peter Peacock and Dr Foxley.

Dr Foxley explained to the Lochaber Times this week: ‘We introduced a tapering staffing arrangement for the future – a school roll of up to 15 had one teacher; 16-19 one and one-half teachers; over 20 then two teachers.

‘As the school roll changed in small villages, this provided stability for teaching staff and improved educational outcomes for the children.

‘A proposal was made to remove this half teacher format in 2010 but was withdrawn when the impact was realised.

‘The proposed saving is only £104k, a tenth of the £1M set aside in the 2022/23 budget for Innovation in Education.

‘The risk is unstated despite the reality that this saving will have a devastating impact on Highland’s many small rural primary schools, their communities and their children. The new councillors need to reverse this decision.’

Asked for her views, Ms Forbes said she shared the concerns of both Strontian and Ardgour parents, and confirmed she had written to the director of education at Highland Council calling for this arrangement to be reviewed.

Ms Forbes added: ‘In Strontian’s case, there will be a significantly larger P1 intake in 2023/24, meaning that – unless Highland Council takes note of our pleas – they will likely lose a teacher only to then have to re-recruit for the following academic year.

‘That’s a very difficult sell for a remote and rural area where short-term affordable housing is at a premium already.

‘I do understand why teacher-to-pupil ratios are necessary, as well as the need for the council to use its resources fairly and equitably.

Local MSP Kate Forbes. NO-F-42-KATE-FORBES-SERIOUS-01.jpg
Local MSP Kate Forbes.

‘That said, these small village schools will likely have a fluctuating roll for some time, and I worry that unless the council is willing to look at the medium term then erratic staffing levels will have a detrimental impact on pupils, staff and these communities as a whole.’

Asked to comment, a Highland Council spokesperson said: ‘At the meeting of the Highland Council on March 3, decisions on savings and budget were agreed by Members. We are aware of the feedback received from parents and we will be engaging with schools on this matter.’