PARENTS argue that rural schools should be viewed as the foundation stone of the strategy to rebuild the population of the north-west Highlands, which is currently facing a steep decline.

They have formed the Save Our Rural Schools (SORS) campaign and want schools to be valued as community anchors – a vital part of the infrastructure that keeps a village or an area vibrant.

With a functioning school, it is possible to attract families with people of working age. They bring jobs for teachers and admin staff and, most importantly, a thriving school is a beacon of hope for the future.

A Scottish Government report last month showed that population decline in the north-west Highlands above Skye is among the worst in Scotland. The SORS campaign represents four high schools in this area – Gairloch, Ullapool, Kinlochbervie and Farr.

All of these schools are well under capacity already and a further fall in rolls is baked in because the primary schools that feed them are currently shrinking and in some cases mothballed or suspended.

Gairloch High has capacity for 270 students but has only 89 at the moment and the roll is predicted to fall to 70 in the next five years.

Onie Tibbitt, mother of a Gairloch student and a member of the SORS campaign, which has been launched by parent councils, said: “We love this school, it is one of the reasons we moved here a year and a half ago.

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“It is small enough that it can offer a tailored education and everyone knows everyone. But it needs to be protected and that won’t happen .

“Because Highland Council uses a formula to allocate teachers which is based on the school roll, without a change in policy all of these high schools are going to lose teaching posts, admin posts, and other facilities over the next decade.

“That will make them less attractive and eventually unsustainable. We wants schools in this area to be exempt from the pupil funding formula and to get the same kind of extra support island schools get.”

Gairloch High – on the same site as the primary – was built in the late 1990s and has a light-filled entrance hall leading into a hexagonal community library. Senior students in the English class and their teacher Eilidh Caddell talked about their experience of learning in a rural area.

Like any school, it has pros and cons. The young people enjoy a calm, family atmosphere. Caddell said: “I wouldn’t say there is no bullying here but because it is such a small school it is harder to keep things hidden.”

“You are not likely to get battered in the toilets at this school,” a boy jokingly confirms.

On the down side, subject choice for older years is restricted by lack of access to teachers – they would like to be able to learn Spanish and history. Online courses are not the same as face-to-face learning and need proper support.

Sport is another problem. One student is driven to Inverness by a parent three times a week – a three hour round trip – for rugby.

The school would benefit from more peripatetic teachers who could add to the subject choice. But they also need permanent positions – falling rolls combined with the dreaded pupil formula puts teachers’ jobs at risk and makes planning hard.

On the plus side, the school makes an effort to offer older pupils apprenticeships and courses which take advantage of opportunities in the local community – a group of girls spends a half a day a week doing a horse care course, a boy spends a day a week with an electrician. Another pupil is leaving next year to take up a position as a trainee gamekeeper.

The students come from a wide area by school bus, collected in ones and twos from rural settlements. In some cases, it is an hour each way to school and when they get home, they are not usually able to get out to see friends and have to amuse themselves. Some have part-time jobs, or do chores on the croft, others like to go out in the hills on mountain bikes and some prefer the Xbox.

They are a healthy-looking bunch, not afflicted by obesity like many of their urban counterparts. One complaint is that until the senior years they are not allowed out during lunch-break and have to eat at the school canteen – but most accept it probably is better for them than a trip to the supermarket.

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Seori Burnett’s three children went to Badcaul Primary school – currently mothballed – and then to Ullapool High, which has a capacity of 540 and a school roll of 182, due to dip to 120 before starting to rise again.

Burnett said: “Ullapool itself is doing OK but the primaries in the areas around are struggling at the moment. But I would like to see Highland Council wait to see what happens before closing these schools. The problem is not that families don’t want to live in this area – they do. But they can’t afford to compete for housing.”

He said there are initiatives across the Highlands to build more affordable homes but that there is currently not a good balance between the numbers of second homes, holiday lets and affordable family homes.

“There are jobs in the north west Highland, although not always very well paid ones. That is not the problem. Housing is another part of the puzzle and there are some good initiative going on there.

“But while we work on the housing piece we need to support the schools effectively. If we lose the schools then it is very hard to replace them. I think we need to see beyond the price per pupil and understand that our schools are the foundation stone of building a strong north-west Highlands for the future.”

A version of this article was first published on Jackie Kemp’s Substack – A Letter from Scotland