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£60 million for five schools: Job done or just the tip of the iceberg for Highland Council?

Highland school investment
Highland Council approved a £60 million school investment plan, but members were warned more will be needed soon.

Highland Councillors have approved a £60 million school investment plan – but members have been warned more will be needed soon.

The council is promising to deliver new builds at Beauly Primary, Dunvegan Primary, Park Primary and St Clement’s Schools, and a £19 million expansion at Culloden Academy in the next three years.

But even as they agreed to what some called their biggest investment to date, councillors were warned that the state of Highland schools means more projects are just around the corner.

One said: “We can’t think about these five schools without thinking about the next five, and then the five after that.”

New life for long-awaited projects

The five projects prioritised in the council’s new Medium Term Financial Plan have been on the table for years. The schools in question are dealing with varying infrastructural and capacity problems, but the council plan promises each project will be finished by August 2024.

So how much is council setting aside for each school, and what are the projects?

Beauly Primary School – £12 million

The Beauly school project will add a new nursery and replace what the council called “seriously substandard buildings.”

Beauly Primary School.

Pupils and staff may be working out of temporary units during the construction. Part of the plan calls for keeping one of the existing buildings as the new nursery.

Culloden Academy – £10 million (£19.2 million total)

The much-needed expansion at Culloden Academy has been a source of confusion and concern for parents and councillors since it was first promised in 2018. The initial £7.5 million price tag grew to £7.7 million and then £9.2 million this summer.

The approved school investment plan has added another £10 million, bringing the total project to £19.2 million. The promised 2024 completion date would be a relief to aggrieved parents and pupils at a school that is already overcrowded.

But local councillor Ken Gowans said he wants more clarity on why the cost has risen so much. In part, because it may be a lesson for future projects.

“There’s a lack of clarity on why we’re spending almost three times the normal amount. Three times the price doesn’t necessarily mean three times the size of the development.

“We need to know why that is and what lessons we can learn from that. This extra spend on Culloden Academy, whether it’s justified or not, will have an adverse effect on other school projects across Highland.”

Council officers found that the original plan would only help with capacity pressure until 2023. The current expansion, due in 2024, promises to meet capacity requirements up to 2029.

Dunvegan Primary School – £12 million

Council hosted two public consultations about the replacement of Dunvegan Primary School over the summer. Thursday’s decision promised a new, four-classroom building with nursery accommodation and room for further expansion.

The need for improvements at Dunvegan roared into the public eye in 2018, when students shared a video of flooding beneath a classroom.

Park Primary School – £13 million

Teachers and pupils at Park Primary are still recovering from the trauma after the school was recently ravaged by multiple fires.

Park Primary School in Invergordon sustained serious damage in a fire earlier this year. Peter Jolly

The majority of the school was demolished following a fire in 2020. But another fire broke out in February of this year, just a few weeks before the school was scheduled to reopen.

According to council plans, none of the existing buildings are fit for use. A new £13 million school is scheduled for August 2024.

St Clement’s Primary School – £13 million

Ross-Shire councillors made it clear that St Clement’s has been in need of a new building for years. But the project has been repeatedly stalled by failed attempts to establish a suitable site.

St Clement’s School in Dingwall is scheduled for a rebuild, but the council has not found a suitable site.

After MSP Maree Todd declared the building unfit for purpose and MSP Kate Forbes likened chilly conditions at the Victorian-era building to “something out of Oliver Twist,” the council ramped up efforts to replace it.

Council allotted £13 million to rebuild the school, which serves primary students with additional needs. But it’s still no closer to a build site. And that’s a problem, said local councillor Graham MacKenzie.

“This is a bittersweet moment for us. It’s delightful to see the commitment to the full funding of a new school… But as little as a few short months ago, we were in a state of excitement where we felt that coming to this meeting today, we would be in a position where we have a site.

“And yet again, we’re back to where we were before.”

All five projects are scheduled for three years of construction. But unlike the other four – which have proposed completion dates of August 2024 –  St Clement’s three-year clock will only start ticking “once a suitable new site has been identified and acquired.”

‘Poor’ ratings could mean more school investment to come in Highland

The newest school estate statistics released by the Scottish Government showed work to be done in Highland. The report ranks schools as bad, poor, satisfactory or good.

Highland is home to more than a third of the primary schools in Scotland that are in ‘poor’ condition.

Councillor Denis Rixson said that the five schools scheduled for construction are just the tip of the iceberg. Unique climate conditions and the sheer size of Highland’s school estate mean there is always work to do, he said.

“We can’t think about these five schools without thinking about the next five, and then the five after that.

“I’m not assigning any blame. Our weather will be the harshest in Scotland. But this data should give us pause for thought.

“How many other schools should we be budgeting for?”

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