It’s Monday morning, the sun is shining, and I am looking out over a radiantly green valley that slopes away beneath the rolling Ochil Hills.

There are horses grazing and lazing in the next field, and a buzzard calling out as it floats by overhead. The air is fresh, but crisp enough to hint that September is just around the corner.

Amidst this idyllic picture of rural Scotland is my reason for visiting: a small, independent school operating out of an old, courtyard-style country house.

It all feels very exclusive, but the reality is a long way from the world of piped blazers, expansive sports fields and Range Rover school runs created by parents who shell out five-figure sums for their kids’ education.

Seamab school is a small charity offering residential care and education. Whereas other groups might provide services for young people with complex developmental conditions or learning difficulties, this one steps in to care for children whose experiences of life have made them some of the most vulnerable in the entire country.

Historically, Seamab catered to children at primary and lower-secondary ages, but recent changes mean that they can now care for those aged five all the way up to 18, minimising the number of potentially damaging transitions to be navigated.

Some live with families nearby, but most reside either on the Care Campus – a collection of bungalows shared by several young people on the edge of a picturesque nearby woodland – or, if they are older, in a new house near Linlithgow.

By the time a child arrives here a whole range of alternative strategies and placements will have been tried – and failed. Every single one has been referred, and is funded, by a local authority that believes this to be their best chance at a better life.

Yet there is, undoubtedly, a stigma attached to places like this.

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CEO Stuart Provan

Staff members talk about the grimaced reaction from some when they mention their place of work. There remains, even in the 21st Century, and in a country that likes to think of itself as a progressive beacon, an assumption in some quarters that the problem is simply bad parents or, even worse, bad children.

More people than would ever admit it believe that institutions like this one should be run like prisons, that they should be located far away from the rest of us, and that the children who live there are a threat to “normal” kids.

But in contrast to that grim and callous caricature, which dismisses some of the most vulnerable people in our society as dangerous, broken and worthless, Seamab feels like a joyful place.

READ MORE: Rugby star backing Seamab appeal

Adults and children refer to one another using first names, and the strong bond between the staff and those in their care is very obvious. There is a constant buzz of colour and energy around the place and over the course of my visit the prevailing sound is laughter.

I meet one girl who happily confirms that we are welcome to visit her class any time, and a boy who takes me to see their bee-hive when I mention how much my wife likes them. The first question I am asked comes from another girl who wants to know my star sign, which I don’t actually know, so she asks for my birthday and then enthusiastically informs me that I am, in fact, a Virgo.

This doesn’t feel like a residential care centre that happens to have a school bolted on, nor does it feel like a school that also offers a bit of residential care on the side – instead, the two threads feel completely and inextricably intertwined.

“They have to be,” confirms Robbie Henderson, a former footballer who is now the Head of Care. He is often the first point of contact for referrals to Seamab, and explains that although the children here tend to come from particularly difficult backgrounds that share certain similarities, every single story is unique. The constant is the critical importance of positive relationships, patience, understanding and, in particular, love.

Take the time to visit and it’s easy to see how all of that is fostered in an environment like this one, where the dedication and genuine personal commitment of the staff is undeniable, but there is a problem: although the people, ethos and atmosphere are wonderful, the school building simply is not fit for purpose.

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An old country house is good for many things – running a modern school, never mind one catering to young people with incredibly complex needs and challenging behaviours, is not one of them.

The corridors are too narrow for people to pass one another comfortably. There is no dedicated dining area, so pupils eat in their classrooms. Sound travels far too easily, meaning that an incident in one room can spill into and disrupt activities in others. Several areas are not fully accessible and there aren’t enough toilets. It’s too hot in summer and too cold in winter. The list goes on.

None of this is news to the people in charge, who are entirely open about the fact that their current building has become a barrier to further progress. Claire Stephen, the Head of Education, explicitly tells me that the current situation is “depriving” young people of opportunities to which they should be entitled.

READ MORE: Kieron Achara visits SEAMAB school for vulnerable children

The extraordinary work going on at Seamab happens in spite of their facilities, rather than because of them, and a new, purpose-built school – which would almost certainly have been delivered many years ago were this a mainstream, council-operated centre – is desperately needed. Indeed, as CEO Stuart Provan points out, the young people here would likely be in a new-build school if their traumatic experiences and society’s failures hadn’t brought them here.

And yet Seamab cannot access any of the billions of pounds being spent refurbishing and rebuilding schools across Scotland because, technically, it falls into the same category as private schools charging eye-watering (for most of us) tuition fees.

But standing still is not an option, and proposals for a new school have already been developed thanks to several hundred thousand pounds of pro-bono work from architects and contractors. A combination of donations and successful grant applications means that more than £4m of the estimated £5.5m overall cost has been secured.

Planning permission was granted in February 2022 and, if all goes to plan, the new building will be ready in early 2025.

For Claire Stephen, having the young people shape those proposals has been vital not just to ensure that the new building is fit for purpose, but also to give them a sense of genuine ownership over their school and, in some way, their lives.

“I think for these children, they have so little that they can call their own,” she says, “and they have a say in very few things in their lives, so it would be really, really important for them to be able to have an input in building a place that's going to help their future.”

The designs for the new facility highlight just how much is missing from the current one.

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From left, Jody Cannon, Education Services Manager, Chief Exec Stuart Provan, Claire Stephen, Education Head, and Robbie Henderson, Head of Care. 

It will contain six classrooms, all larger than what is currently available, and all with direct access to outside space. A full size gym hall will replace the converted garage that is currently used for P.E. and will also double as a dining hall, allowing the children to eat lunch with their friends. An IT & Life Skills suite, and a dedicated expressive arts space, are included in the blueprints, as are a number of ‘quiet nooks’ that were explicitly requested by the very people for whom this new facility is to be built.

Ultimately, all the children of Seamab are asking for is a school that meets their needs. One where they can access a broader education and enjoy the full benefits of the support being provided. One that, having been built by and for them, just might help to brighten their present and their futures.

And as I head off home there is just one question that keeps tumbling through my mind: what does it say about our society that they have even had to ask for that?