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Is the money guaranteed? Stakeholders want assurances about much-needed Highland school projects

Councillor Ken Gowans wanted extra assurances regarding the Highland school investment plan

Highland Councillors have approved a multi-million-pound school investment plan – but parents want a guarantee that priority schools on the list will definitely get the proposed cash.

Council officers provided a guarantee to fund five priority projects. But the exact amount allotted to each project is still the subject of ongoing planning discussions.

The five priority schools are:

  • Beauly Primary
  • Culloden Academy
  • Dunvegan Primary
  • Park Primary
  • St Clement’s School

Local councillors welcomed the scope of the investment plan and the promise of much-needed funding.

With the projects now guaranteed, stakeholders can mark September 9 – the council’s next meeting – as the day exact funding amounts will be revealed.

But while parents are glad of the announcement, they are cautiously awaiting further details at the end of the summer.

Highland school investment plan follows years of delays for some communities

Many of the schools on the priority list have been on the council’s radar for years. In 2018, pupils and community members raised concerns about the condition of St Clement’s School in Dingwall.

St Clement's is part of the school investment plan in Highland
St Clement’s School, Dingwall which Highland Council has prioritized for replacement.

The new investment plan proposes £13 million for St Clements, which still does not have a confirmed build site. The council documents suggest a 36-month construction period once officials finalise the scope.

Councillor Margaret Paterson called it a good new story.

“I’m so delighted to see St Clement’s School on the list for schools capital investments at last. St Clement’s School has waited over 20 years to see this.”

Culloden back to the table

The Culloden Academy expansion project has been an ongoing matter of contention within Highland Council. After councillors agreed to a plan in 2018, construction did not begin until April 2021.

Then, members of the parents council and stakeholder group hit out at the council for delays and lack of transparency, after claims of a £5 million funding gap.

In response, local councillors vowed to bring a motion demanding full funding for Culloden. The newly-approved school investment plan includes £8-9 million for Culloden, but councillor Ken Gowans told the council on Thursday that the community needs firm guarantees.

Highland Councillor Ken Gowans outside Culloden Academy, Inverness. Picture by Sandy McCook

“We all know the unfortunate state of a lot of our schools in Highland and the roll capacities and pressures that they’re under.”

“Is this money guaranteed? If we say yes today, I need to get assurances for the parents at the school that this money is absolutely guaranteed.”

Liz Denovan, executive chief officer of resources and finance, provided just that but said that some details are still in the works.

“The money for all five projects is guaranteed and will be borrowed. What we’re not stating is that it’s absolutely £9 million (for Culloden) because we have to carry out the scope.

“But the projects will be guaranteed and we’ll go ahead and borrow the necessary funds.”

Construction crews cleared ground in April to make room for temporary classrooms at Culloden Academy in time for the 2021-2022 school year.

The council tabled a previously-scheduled motion by councillors Glynis Sinclair and Mr Gowans relating to Culloden Academy. In a vote, the council decided that the issue had already been decided by the approval of the school investment plan.

Parents tempering excitement while awaiting firmer details

Jason Hasson, chair of the Highland Parent Council Partnership, said that Thursday’s announcement was a positive step for many schools in need of help. But years of disappointment have left him hesitant to celebrate just yet.

“I think it’s encouraging that they’re looking at it, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s wait and see once the planning work has been done.”

And in the interval, communication between the council and stakeholders–something that has been lacking until now–will be vital, he added.

“We’ll be working with the council and working with the parent council for the individual schools to make sure that the parents are getting the information that’s needed to make the schools more worthy for the pupils that are coming in and coming up.

It’s about being open and honest.”

“All parents want from any dealing that we have with anyone in education is to be open and honest with us. If it’s not working, tell us it’s not working. Tell us why it’s not working and how we can improve it.”

Don’t forget the students

Still, Mr Hasson added that everyone involved needs to remember that Highland students are the most important factors in the school investment plan.

“Kids take ownership when they come into a school. They want to be proud of their school.

“That’s an important thing as well. And as much as everyone wants a piece of the pie…it’s got to be a collaborative approach. The be-all and end-all is we’re building it with a view to the children who will be going to that school.”