Forty primary schools in mostly rural areas of Scotland have been closed or mothballed by councils in recent years due to dwindling pupil numbers, prompting depopulation concerns.
The figures obtained by The Ferret under Freedom of Information (FOI) show that 20 schools were mothballed and 20 were shut for good between April 2018 and February this year, with 15 more at risk.
Most closures were in rural areas, which can be more vulnerable to depopulation and ageing demographics. Young and working age people are needed to fill all the necessary roles, and sustain these communities.
Our findings come days after rural depopulation was discussed in the Scottish Parliament, when the Scottish Government was challenged on what it is doing to tackle the issue.
Rural MSPs said The Ferret’s “alarming” figures were “clear indicators of communities or villages in crisis”. Some accused the Scottish Government of enacting public spending cuts, which they argued, have a “disproportionate impact” on rural and remote communities.
The Scottish Government said its own figures showed that 12 rural schools had closed, 21 had been mothballed and seven rural schools had opened since 2018, while others may have merged.
A strategy to tackle depopulation was published in 2021, and a new plan aimed at tackling depopulation would be published in the Autumn, it added.
Official stats project the number of children in Scotland to fall by more than a fifth, and the number of over 65s to rise by nearly a third by 2045.
According to data provided by individual local authorities, over the last five years, 11 schools have been mothballed or permanently shut in the Highland Council area, eight in Argyll, six in Aberdeenshire, and three each in Dumfries and Galloway and Perthshire.
One or more schools were also closed or mothballed in Stirlingshire, the Western Isles, Angus, Falkirk, Shetland, Moray, and Fife.
Low pupil numbers have put 13 more schools at risk of closure. Blackness school near Falkirk and Tundergarth school in Dumfriesshire may be mothballed in the coming months.
Aberdeen City Council plans to close some of the 11 schools in the Bridge of Don and Northfield areas. Aberdeen is the only Scottish city where a local authority is considering such a move.
In March, The Ferret reported that parents on the Inner Hebridean island of Luing were fighting the closure of their mothballed local primary school. Locals branded the school the “heart of the community”, and warned that permanent closure could push away young families and fuel depopulation.
Children currently have to travel to Easdale primary on neighbouring Seil island, or Kilninver on the mainland – a trip consisting of two buses and a short ferry crossing each way. On 8 June, Argyll and Bute Council’s community services committee voted to start a consultation to shut the school for good from 31 May 2024.
Councils have different policies when it comes to making decisions about closing or mothballing schools. For example, Aberdeenshire Council will consider mothballing a primary school when numbers drop to eight or fewer pupils.
Dumfries and Galloway monitors schools with 50 per cent or fewer pupils enrolled than each school’s capacity allows. In 2017, the council’s list of schools on this list reached 26.
|Aberdeen City Council||Danestone||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Forehill||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Glashieburn||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Greenbrae||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Middleton Park||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Bramble Brae||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Heathryburn||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Manor Park||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Muirfield||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Quarryhill||At Risk|
|Aberdeen City Council||Westpark||At Risk|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Ardchattan||Closed|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Ashfield||Closed|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Skipness||Closed|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Achaleven||Mothballed|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Kilchrenan||Mothballed|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Luing||Mothballed|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Minard||Mothballed|
|Argyle and Bute Council||Southend||Mothballed|
|Dumfries and Galloway Council||Carsphairn||Mothballed|
|Dumfries and Galloway Council||Hutton||Mothballed|
|Dumfries and Galloway Council||Ae||Mothballed|
|Dumfries and Galloway Council||Tundergarth||At Risk|
|Falkirk Council||Blackness||At Risk|
|Highland Council||Roy Bridge||Mothballed|
|Perth and Kinross Council||Blairingone||Closed|
|Perth and Kinross Council||Forteviot||Closed|
|Perth and Kinross Council||Greenloaning||Closed|
|Shetland Islands Council||Fetlar||Mothballed|
|Western Isles Council||Bernera||Mothballed|
|Western Isles Council||Tolsta||Mothballed|
Scotland’s population trends
According to Office for National Statistics data, which was analysed by National Record of Scotland, Scotland’s population will peak in 2028 before starting to decline, largely due to lower birth rates.
Scotland’s population could fall by 1.5 per cent over the next 25 years, whilst the UK population as a whole could grow by 5.8 per cent. Depopulation is caused when more people leave than move or return to an area, and when the number of deaths outstrips births.
Should past trends continue, Scotland could have 200,000 fewer children – a fall of 22 per cent – and 300,000 more people over 65 – an increase of 30 per cent – by 2045.
In their responses to a Scottish Government consultation, islanders said depopulation was the biggest issue they faced. The availability of schools was a frequently named factor, as was access to childcare, agricultural land, healthcare, good internet and infrastructure, employment, training, care, public transport, higher education, affordable housing and fuel.
Some rural communities ‘in crisis’
Opposition MSPs representing rural constituencies have raised concerns about school closures, and the effect on their communities.
The Scottish Conservatives accused the government of “savage cuts” to local authorities and a focus on the central belt, which the party claimed had a “disproportionate impact on rural and remote communities”.
“These figures show that it is our young people who are paying the price,” argued Jamie Halcro Johnston, a Tory Highlands and Islands MSP. “That flies in the face of education being the SNP’s number one priority and is deeply damaging for the rural economy.”
He added: “If something as vital as a school isn’t easily available, then it will only drive people away from rural areas and fail to incentivise others to come and live in them.”
The Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, also targeted the government. “With their continuous disregard for our rural and island communities, young families are being forced out of the area, placing our very culture and heritage at risk,” she claimed.
Grant accused the government of “cuts to community organisations, lack of policy, action and support for childcare, an inability to provide and protect key life line services, and little support for providing sustainability to our rural towns and areas.”
Ariane Burgess, the Highlands and Islands Green MSP, said school closures were “clear indicators of communities or villages in crisis” and “part of a bigger picture of rural depopulation and decline”.
“Communities should have the means to shape their own future, but that can’t happen without the people and resources to do so,” she added.
“This alarming data doesn’t just emphasise the need for good quality local services and transport, it also underlines the urgent need for more high quality rural homes that people can afford.”
The Scottish government said local authorities were responsible for schools, but it had strengthened legislation in 2014 to ensure councils prove they have considered all alternatives to closing a rural school.
“They must also publish an impact assessment detailing how closing the school will affect the local community and how it will affect travel to school arrangements for pupils,” said a government spokesperson.
They added: “Like many advanced countries, Scotland is facing a set of long-term population challenges, and we know this is particularly acute in some remote, rural and island areas. That is why, in 2021, the Scottish Government published Scotland’s first Population Strategy.
“Rural areas need tailored solutions, and our Addressing Depopulation Action Plan will set out ways for the Scottish Government and partners to enable population retention and repopulation across rural and island communities.”
Update: We originally stated that three schools were at risk of closure in the Falkirk Council area. The local authority later clarified that it had incorrectly said three schools, rather than one, were at risk of closure in a Freedom of Information response. We corrected this claim at 10:22 on 13 June.
Featured photo thanks to the community of Luing.
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