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Future of Buckie area schools under the spotlight at drop-in sessions

By Alan Beresford

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The future of schools in the Buckie ASG – including Buckie High (pictured) – was the focus of two drop-in sessions.
The future of schools in the Buckie ASG – including Buckie High (pictured) – was the focus of two drop-in sessions.

THE future of schools in the Buckie ASG (Associated Schools Group) came under the spotlight when two drop-in consultations were held.

The Fishermen's Hall, Buckie and Cullen Library played host to the events last Monday and Tuesday respectively, which form part of a wider engagement with the public on the area's learning estate.

They followed previous meetings between the council and stakeholder groups, such as parent councils.

An online survey is also running until 5pm on March 14 on Moray Council's website.

The engagement aims to examine a number of factors, including the use, occupancy, suitability and condition of all Moray schools. The goal is to deliver a modern, fit-for-purpose and affordable learning estate for communities across Moray. A similar exercise has already been conducted in the Forres ASG.

A number of challenges face the local authority when it comes to their stock of 53 schools – 45 primary and eight secondaries – not least the overall condition of the properties and how to make them fit for a sustainable, long term future. According to Moray Council data, some six of Buckie ASG's schools, including Buckie Community High School, are rated C (poor) for condition.

Falling rural school rolls over the next five to eight years is another issue, which has to be taken alongside planned housing developments, such as the one earmarked for the west of Buckie. The council have stated that an ideal occupancy level for primary schools is 75-85 per cent of capacity with 90 per cent the target for secondaries.

Andy Hall, Moray Council's Programme Manager Learning Estate, was keen to stress that it was vital as many people as possible had their say.

He said: "We want to be open and honest about this whole process and for everyone to have their voice heard.

"These sessions are about sharing information and listening.

"One of the main things which came up – and this was the case in the Forres sessions, too – is there's clearly a strong attachment to schools, be it current parents, parents whose children have moved on or people who are ex-pupils. We certainly recognise that strong feeling, especially with the rural schools.

"The other one that keeps coming up as well is early learning provision.

"Another thing people are concerned about is if there child moves from a smaller school to a bigger school because there's been a merger or closure. In these circumstances, for example when Crossroads near Keith was mothballed affecting three children, we realised that they needed additional support for the transition and kept staff in place from their old school to move to their new school.

"We've also got the survey to get people's input; we don't need people to answer all the questions. The survey is configured such that you'll be asked questions based on what kind of stakeholder you are.

"I'd really encourage people to fill that in or get in touch by email or writing to us. Please put in your thoughts. We need to make sure we're delivering a 21st century educational facilities."

While no closures or mergers are currently on the board, they cannot ultimately be ruled out. For rural schools, the Scottish Government has a policy of presumption against closure, with local authorities having to put forward an very strong case based on educational benefit, not cost savings.

Rezoning of school catchment areas to reflect population shifts may also be on the cards in Buckie and elsewhere.

Mr Hall continued: "To manage the 53 schools we have across Moray – it's quite a large stock for a relatively small local authority – we're aware that 53 schools isn't necessarily what the future will be for the next 10, 15, 20 years.

"I can't shy away from the fact that there may be some closure options in there but what people need to be assured by is that we can't close a school as council officers. We can make recommendations, these recommendations then have to go through elected members but even they can't close a school. We have to go through a consultation process in accordance with the 2010 School Act; ultimately the decision in terms of closure will go to the Scottish Government."

However, just because a school's roll may be falling it does not necessarily mean bad news in terms of its future.

Mr Hall explained: "We don't see learning as just being something that goes on from three to 18, we want to make sure that our learning estate can support life-long learning.

"Whether that is adult learners coming back into education or whether it means we extend what we're offering in terms of vocational stuff, we have to look at ways we can make it more accessible.

"We've got to look at how we can best utilise the estate we have. School rolls are falling; if a school's roll falls to 50 per cent it doesn't automatically mean we should close the school, the question is 'How do I use the other 50 per cent?'.

"That means we look at other users for the facility, be that other council services, other partner services – NHS, fire and rescue, ambulance, police etc – because, like us, they're looking at their portfolio and asset estate. So, we need to think about how we can work much closer together within those community partnerships to utilise our facilities with more than one stakeholder."

Local residents in the Buckie ASG who were unable to attend the drop-ins are invited to participate in an online survey where they can share their views and opinions on what they want from their schools.

Moving forward, focus groups drawn from communities in the ASG will be created to look at specific themes.

The other Moray ASGs set to follow Buckie over the course of the next 18 months or so.

People can also submit their views to the consultation by emailing LearningEstate@moray.gov.uk, phoning (01343) 563374 or writing to Learning Estate Team, Moray Council, Room 209, High Street, Elgin, IV30 1BX.

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