MORAY Council has approved an extra £3 million for a new Elgin High School, to provide the flexibility it says is required to accommodate a projected surge in student numbers.
Councillors unanimously voted in favour of a new school design at their full meeting this week, which will allow for 800 pupils at the outset, with the potential to expand.
However, it will cost the council an extra £3 million without external funding.
Elected members were told on Wednesday that the council’s original submission to the Scottish Government had been based on a school built for a maximum of 758 pupils.
The current roll at Elgin High is 582, but partly due to increased residential development in the school’s catchment area, that is predicted to grow to 726 by 2020.
In September, 2012, Moray Council received an offer in principle from the Scottish Government to provide funding of up to two-thirds of eligible costs for a replacement Elgin High. Acceptance of this funding offer included a commitment by the council for "meaningful progress" to be demonstrated by March, 2014, and the potential to complete by the start of the 2015-2016 academic year.
In May, 2013, the total amount of cash allocated from the Scottish Government, through Scottish Futures Trust Funding, was £11.7 million (two thirds), with a further contribution of £5.9 million (one third) coming from Moray Council. This made a total of £17.6 million for a school of 9,268 square metres.
Following approval from the Scottish Government, Moray Council submitted a new project request to hub North Scotland Ltd (hubCo), the developer partner which will finance and build Elgin High.
The current design submitted by hubCo is compliant in terms of providing a like-for-like replacement school within the affordability cap.
However, as councillors heard on Wednesday, this design comes with constraints within the core teaching blocks and the site layout.
This includes the size of some of the accommodation, including the teaching areas and sports hall, being "minimised" to make the project affordable. There was also nothing in the budget to provide vehicle access from an Edgar Road extension on the school site, which itself is estimated to cost £800,000.
Councillors were given three options: Option A, retaining the existing design for 720 pupils with an estimated capacity for 758 pupils, and providing access from High School Drive only; Option B, providing a design for 800 pupils and enhanced core (communal) areas for extra cost, with future expansion capacity, plus access from the Edgar Road extension (an extra £3 million altogether); and Option C, providing an immediate design for 1,000 pupils for an extra cost, plus access from the Edgar Road extension (an extra £5 million altogether).
Nick Goodchild, Moray Council’s educational resources manager, described Option B as "the most flexible", with the potential to expand the school to accommodate 1,000 pupils in the future.
Council convener, Councillor Stewart Cree (Independent, Keith and Cullen) admitted that councillors would ideally like to see the result of Moray’s extensive school review before making a decision, but acknowledged the Scottish Government’s funding stipulation that "meaningful progress" would have to be made before March, 2014.
"The risks to the funding are significant, and we need to look at the other options and decide what we could and should do now," he said.
Independent councillor Anne Skene, Forres, chair of the council’s children and young people’s services committee, described Option A as having "serious limitations" and being "deeply disappointing".
"It could be too small in five years," she said, making a motion to approve Option B.
"Option B maximises the Scottish Futures Trust Funding and provides enhanced communal areas with good space and better integration of sports facilities.
"In Option B it would be possible to increase to up to 1,000 pupils because the additional core space would be adequate. The costs of Option C are unaffordable."
Councillor John Divers (Labour, Elgin City South) said he had been involved in the campaign for a new Elgin High School since 2001.
"There is a need to push this on," he said. "I have always argued about the size of the school, and Option B sits very comfortably with me."
Graham Leadbitter (SNP, Elgin City South) described Option B as "the only way forward".
"The critical thing for me is that this is going to be here for a lengthy period of time and is going to educate thousands of people, and we need to build something that is fit for purpose," he said.
Labour councillor Sean Morton (Fochabers Lhanbryde) warned that by approving an extra £3 million for Elgin High, there would be less money to spend on schools elsewhere.
"It’s fair to point out that the more money we spend in Elgin, the less we will have to spend in other schools, and we will have to deal with the consequences of that," he said.
"It would also be fair to point out that we need to have a more realistic budget when we look at new schools in the future."
Councillor Joe Mackay (Independent, Buckie) said he thought Moray would "rue the day" that it did not opt for one new secondary in Elgin for 1,100 pupils, rather than build a separate new Elgin Academy and new Elgin High School. "That day has come," he added.
However, Councillor Divers said that if it had been built, that school would already be verging on being too small. "We would have needed one for approaching 2,000 pupils," he added.