Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.

33 schools across Aberdeenshire ‘half-empty’ as cash-strapped council warns of ‘tough choices ahead’

We asked council chiefs about school transport, staff, teaching hours, and if plans for new schools in Peterhead and Fraserburgh are still going ahead.

Chairman of Aberdeenshire Council's education and children's services councillor David Keating and Arnage Primary School
Chairman of Aberdeenshire Council's education and children's services councillor David Keating and Arnage Primary School, which is expected to be operating at 39% capacity by 2027. Image: John Wilkie/DC Thomson

Aberdeenshire Council has revealed that 33 half-empty schools are accumulating crippling costs as difficult budget cuts loom.

The local authority is facing a £67 million black hole for the year ahead, meaning some “tough decisions” will need to be made to cut back on spending.

In an exclusive interview with the Press and Journal ahead of financial plans for the next year being drawn up, we asked council chiefs what could be at risk.

Council leader Gillian Owen warned that “everything is on the table”.

She said: “Last year we had in the region of £61m to find.

“Year-on-year it seems to be that we are having to make huge savings and obviously from our residents’ point of view, that is quite a concern.

“The key thing for us is the unintended consequences of the decisions that we are going to have to make…”

How much does the local authority spend on education?

Aberdeenshire Council spends over £400 million each year on education and children’s services.

Schooling takes up around 60% of the whole budget, which could leave it as an area under intense scrutiny when deciding on cuts.

A chart breaking down how the budget is currently spent on services across the region
This chart breaks down how the budget is currently spent on services across the region. Image: Aberdeenshire Council

The council has found there is a gap between what it takes in and what it needs to spend, which is where some services might face the chop.

For example, statutory services that have to be run such as school transport are only partly funded – and the council needs to find the remaining cash elsewhere.

How many schools and pupils is the council responsible for?

There are 147 primary schools, 17 academies and four special schools spread across the vast county.

The settings currently welcome 20,819 primary youngsters and 15,718 secondary pupils.

Meanwhile, around 2,800 full-time teachers are employed.

And as it stands, 33 of the primaries are less than half full while just one is running over capacity.

Could schools be closed to save cash?

In one specific Aberdeenshire cluster, which councillors asked not to be named for fear of spreading alarm, there is one academy and nine primary schools.

None of the primary schools are full, and are currently sitting at around 64% capacity.

On average, it costs Aberdeenshire Council just over £261,000 to run a small school which estimates to around £13,000 per pupil.

Larger primary schools cost over £2 million per year – around £5,000 per child.

Image of Kininmonth School
Kininmonth School could be operating at just 17% capacity by 2027. Image: Wullie Marr / DC Thomson

Meanwhile, an academy costs £5.18 million which works out at a cost of £8,300 per student.

Chiefs refused to rule out any closures amid the growing financial pressure.

Education and children’s services chairman David Keating said: “We do have some schools with quite low utilisation and the council has set a band of 75%-95% as the optimum best value.

“It’s not about picking up on an individual school but looking at the whole estate, taking account of the life cycle maintenance and future projections of pupils.”

He pledged that any decisions would “be data-led” with full consultation and “educational benefit” at the heart of the process.

Image of Tipperty Primary School
Tipperty Primary School could run at just 16% capacity by 2027. Image: Chris Sumner/DC Thomson

A proposal to look at the region’s entire school estate is expected to go before councillors next month.

The tight-lipped officials didn’t specifically name any schools, but according to Aberdeenshire Council’s own figures, some are expected to drop to just 16% capacity by 2027.

Those projected to be well under capacity include Kinneff (19%), Luthermuir (19%), Tipperty (16%) and Kininmonth (17%).

What will happen to schools that need repair work?

The local authority also faces a backlog of maintenance in its huge school estate.

It would cost a staggering £65 million to fix all of the identified jobs over the next 10 years.

In the year ahead, the council could pay just under £4m to address the most urgent problems such as heating upgrades, roof repairs and replacement windows.

Image of Banchory Academy
Banchory Academy is one of the region’s 17 secondary schools. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson

Mr Keating said some work will inevitably be shuffled down the pecking order.

He explained: “With the money we have, we have to prioritise what is important.

“Some things absolutely will need to be done, some things would be nice to do but truthfully we probably won’t get round to those in the next couple of years.”

Will school transport take a hit?

Operating school transport in just one cluster for a year currently costs £1.63 million, which works out at £2,676 per pupil.

But will the council make any cuts?

Mr Keating explained: “We have requirements to provide school transport…

“But unfortunately the way the government allocation metric works, we and other rural authorities get substantially less than our cost of transport. That’s just a reality.

“It would be nice if the allocation metric changed because it doesn’t fully take account of rurality and I think that’s what drives school transport.”

Image of pupils in an Aberdeenshire classroom
Aberdeenshire Council spends millions on bus travel for school pupils across the region each year. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

The education chairman revealed Aberdeenshire Council broadly spends around £20 million providing buses to primary pupils and a further £15 million for secondary students.

“It’s a huge area that we have and we’re not going to be able to change that particularly in any great level – and it is something the council has looked at several times.

Are teaching staff at risk?

Would Aberdeenshire Council consider cutting teacher numbers to help balance its budget?

Mr Keating said it would “look at things” but stated the Scottish Government is encouraging the local authority to keep the same number of teachers as an “absolute number”.

Image of a teacher and pupils in a classroom
Primary teacher numbers in Aberdeenshire are steady, but the council is struggling to recruit secondary staff.

“We certainly are focused on making sure that pupil/teacher ratio stays as best we can but truth be told, the issue we have in Aberdeenshire at the moment is getting a hold of secondary teachers.

“We asked for 66 and we got 12 last year so that is more the issue.

“Primary population is about settled but I’m not saying we wouldn’t consider something if it was an option to us, but there’s no great plan to change numbers.”

Could school teaching hours change?

As part of its budget setting exercise, finance chiefs at neighbouring Aberdeen City Council have suggested looking at cutting the school week by two-and-a-half hours.

They estimate the move could save £7m over the next two years.

But is this something that could happen in Aberdeenshire?

Image of pupils working in an Aberdeenshire school classroom
Aberdeenshire Council’s core school hours will not be changing anytime soon. Image: Wullie Marr / DC Thomson

Mr Keating said: “We would consider cutting school hours if it was something we could do – but that’s not happening.

“We meet our required school day, but any change that has a benefit in one direction will have a loss in the other.

“It is certainly not something we would be dropping on the public in six months’ time.

“But it’s something we could consider if we thought there was benefit.”

Are new school developments still on the cards?

But amid the local authority’s financial woes, there is some good news.

Construction of the new Peterhead Campus and Fraserburgh primary school will be going ahead as planned.

Image of the proposed new Peterhead Community Campus building
An artist impression of the new Peterhead Community Campus. Image: Aberdeenshire Council

Mr Keating explained: “They are in the pipeline, they are both approved by council so we are going ahead with them.

“Peterhead is going ahead and Fraserburgh is in the design phase which is where they should be.”

You can help set Aberdeenshire Council’s budget

Before elected officials make any final budget decisions, Aberdeenshire Council wants to hear from its residents.

Mrs Owen explained: “Whatever we get from this, we will endeavour to feed that back in so that is taken notice of during our considerations.

“We are very open to listening to what people say to us.

“As elected representatives, we have to understand what that could mean to people so that we know what mitigations we have to put in.”

So what services matter the most to you and where do you think savings could be made?

To share your thoughts, click here to access the budget engagement survey.

Alternatively, you can scan the QR code below: