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We Need to Talk About Balmedie: Where are hundreds of extra kids going to be taught?

Although Aberdeenshire Council believes the school will reach capacity by 2025, there are no firm plans for expansion. Picture by CHRIS SUMNER
Although Aberdeenshire Council believes the school will reach capacity by 2025, there are no firm plans for expansion. Picture by CHRIS SUMNER

More than 1,500 homes and 630 pupils are bound for the Balmedie Primary School area in the next decade.

Although Aberdeenshire Council believes the school will reach capacity by 2025, there are no firm plans for expansion.

Planned housing developments have been slow to materialise, and council officers said that this gives them time to explore available options. These include a new school or an expansion of existing grounds.

But a local campaigner, who first raised the issue as a councillor back in 2008, said that there’s no room on Balmedie’s already crowded campus.

He said a new school is the only option and is worried time is running out.

What’s the situation at Balmedie Primary School?

Last autumn, Allan Hendry launched a campaign to urge the council to pick a site for a new Balmedie Primary. Mr Hendry, formerly a local councillor, said that building and opening a school is a process that takes years.

Mr Hendry has been advocating for a new school in the area since 2008. At a 2013 meeting, he said councillors learned the school roll would hit 582 by 2021. The capacity at the time was 415.

campaign Balmedie School
Former councillor Allan Hendry at Balmedie Primary School. He is campaigning for a new school to deal with increasing enrolment demands. Picture by KATH FLANNERY

The council was also offered two separate properties for a school around the same time, but neither made it into the local development plan.

Despite the bleak projections, the school’s growth didn’t match those early estimates. A council spokeswoman said that disparity is partly because houses didn’t come as quickly as expected.

The capacity is now 484, while the current roll has fallen to 398.

But that could change soon. The council spokeswoman said that there could be as many as 1,577 properties over nine sites built between now and 2028. According to the council’s formula, these homes could bring in 630 pupils to the Balmedie Primary School area with around 50 pupils added each year.

How will new pupils affect the capacity each year?

School rolls fluctuate every year, regardless of whether the area has been marked for development. Older pupils move on to secondary school, nursery students move into primary and the distribution across each grade level changes.

This can have an impact on the school’s working capacity. Each grade level has a different maximum class size, ranging from 25 at P1 to 33 for P4 and higher.

That means that having fewer younger pupils frees up classroom space, but having more P1-P3 pupils might tie up more of the building and limit the capacity.

These variables make it hard to know how much space the school will need. The pandemic made it even harder.

Development delays – for how long?

The pandemic delayed major projects in and around Aberdeen. Although development in Balmedie hasn’t kept pace with expectations, there’s little to suggest that the homes won’t come eventually.

Take, for example, the fact that developers are honouring their agreements to contribute to local infrastructure – including primary education.

To date, Blackdog-area developers Kirkwood Homes have paid the council £279,572 for primary education. And they’re expected to give more – to the tune of £3,274,650 – in the coming years.

That’s on top of millions more from other developers: £1,644,335 from Trump International and £636,914 from Castlehill Housing Association and the council itself.

Over the next six years, the council is expecting an average of 75 new homes per year.

When will we see plans for a new or bigger Balmedie Primary School?

Council officers have pinned any hopes for a solution in Balmedie on the new Local Development Plan.

During recent meetings of the Education and Children’s Services and Formartine Area Committees, local councillors discussed overcrowding at Balmedie, but they were told to wait for the development plan before laying out any specific options.

There are 10 other schools expected to reach capacity by 2026, including nearby Foveran School.

The development plan could shed light on how the council will approach each situation.

Councillors expected the plan in early 2022 and a council spokeswoman said that it is with the Scottish Government for review. There is no timeline for the plan’s final delivery, but the government’s report could come next month.

But Mr Hendry said that any further delays at this point could prove costly. It takes years to select a site, get the necessary approvals, plan and build a new school.

He’s worried that unless the council makes a plan of action soon, more houses will start to go up and any new school will be playing a losing game of catch-up with the demands of new residents.

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