Highland parents are warning that a teacher shortage is putting their schools and communities at risk.

For several years, parents from Farr, Gairloch, Kinlochbervie and Ullapool High Schools have been calling for an exemption to Highland Council’s school staffing formula, which they say disadvantages small rural schools.

Changes to the council's additional support needs provision, unreliable online courses for students and a lack of resources to retain new teachers are adding to the pressures and – in some cases – driving pupils and parents away, they said.

If the patterns of declining pupils, staff cuts and fewer courses continue, the parents say it could have a permanent impact on their villages' population.

This week, they launched the Save our Rural Schools campaign and submitted an open letter to Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth and the Highland Council calling for a change to the staffing policy and protection for their schools.

Highland Council’s staff formula allocates a fixed amount of full-time equivalent positions, plus an extra roll-based allocation. The calculations are different depending on whether a school has more or less than 210 students.

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All four of the schools have fewer than 210 pupils, according to the council's most recent enrollment statistics at the start of the year: Kinlochbervie has 28 students, Farr has 68, Gairloch 89 and Ullapool 173. 

According to the staffing model, Kinlochbervie was allocated roughly 7.5 FTE teaching staff to start the 2023/24 school year across all six grade levels. 

Denise MacDonald, chair of the Kinlochbervie Parent Council, said this includes several part-time staff. It left the school initially unable to offer key courses such as modern languages or religious and moral education.

After a battle with the council, they were able to raise the staffing level to 9.2 FTE. But it still isn’t enough, she said.

“The availability of staff is the driver for deciding the entire curriculum. Our curriculum's breadth and depth have been eroded over the last few years due to staff cuts.

“Many teachers have part-time contracts or teach two or more subjects to create a full-time post, but both can restrict the levels on offer to pupils.

“Without sustained, committed, investment in our schools, the wider spiral of depopulation in rural areas will only continue.”

Donna Weare, chair of Farr High School Parent Council, said that Farr is facing a similar situation, with key courses cut and teachers taking on extra work

"A key area that the school is no longer able to offer due to teacher cutbacks is technical; Technology, Woodwork and Graphic Communication being available.

"This will have a dramatic effect on pupils who would be looking to gain entry into technical apprenticeships as technical subjects are a key requirement of these apprenticeships.”

At all four schools, areas of the curriculum are either only available online – which the letter says has been inconsistent and difficult for students to access – or through compressed timetabling that puts a strain on students and staff.

In some cases, students who registered for courses online were dropped midway through due to a variety of complications.

Students at Gairloch expressed their concerns over the loss of teachers and courses at their school. Monica Cairney said that part-time staffing has restricted course options for next year.

And Iona McWhinney, S6 pupil and Gairloch Captain, said that some classmates have left the school because they cannot take the courses that they need.

“I think the school is a really good school. It has a really nice learning environment and good teachers but if these problems continue, pupil numbers will keep declining and I can't see a long-term future for the school.”

Fiona Mackenzie, Co-Chair of Gairloch High School Parent Council, said that this illustrates how the council’s staffing formula breaks down when a school’s roll drops below a certain level.

“For years we have asked for the punitive staffing formula to be reconsidered, it just doesn't work for smaller schools. It is no longer possible for us to continue to ‘get creative’.

“Our school community is on its knees.”

The Herald: Gairloch High School currently enrolls 89 pupils, according to council statistics.Gairloch High School currently enrolls 89 pupils, according to council statistics. (Image: Denise MacDonald)

She added that the parents’ complaints are not with current staff, who often do extra work to keep the school running.

“While we wholeheartedly commend the commitment and efforts of all the teaching and support staff, with many part-time staff putting in full-time hours just to keep schools running, we aren’t even able to provide a basic curriculum for our high school children.

“The situation is unsustainable."

In many cases, there is only one teacher per department, who is responsible for all year groups. This stress at work adds to the other difficulties that rural teachers face, especially those who struggle to find housing in their village.

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Some reported commuting from the central belt and staying in bed and breakfasts or caravans during the school week, before eventually leaving their position.

Onie Tibbett, co-chair of the Gairloch Parent Council, moved to Wester Ross from the central belt and praised the work that teachers are doing.

“The creativity and commitment of the teachers here is incredible, but small schools need investment and support if they are to provide a broad, consistent curriculum for every pupil.

“Our kids should not have their career options limited because of where they live. Politicians telling us there is no money is unacceptable.”

As the staffing shortage continues and school curriculums continue to deteriorate, parents worry that more families will leave the villages permanently.

The Herald: Kinlochbervie High School enrolls less than 30 pupils, and parents say the council's staffing formula puts it at a disadvantage.Kinlochbervie High School enrolls less than 30 pupils, and parents say the council's staffing formula puts it at a disadvantage. (Image: Denise MacDonald)

Ms MacDonald said that her village of Kinlochbervie is already feeling the effects of this.

“A thriving school is the heart of a community and attracts teachers, families and businesses to the local area.

“Our community is losing many of our vital services such as childcare and health services which is driving families away to larger villages and towns.”

For parents at Ullapool, the school's larger size affords a slightly more varied curriculum. But Seoras Burnett, Chair of Ullapool High School Parent Council, said that there are concerns for the future.

"Whilst at Ullapool High we still have a reasonably varied curriculum, the direction of travel is clear and it’s this downward trajectory caused by under-investment that has to be reversed.

"Formulas do not work for schools in fragile rural communities.

"There has to be a commitment at the national and regional level to a minimum level of secondary education and then the appropriate resources put in place to deliver this”.

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The four parent councils are calling on the government and Highland Council to provide a set of lifelines for their schools: exemption from the council’s staffing formula; permanent teaching positions to help retain staff; reliable distance learning courses; and better relocation packages for incoming staff.

In addition to the staffing shortages, parents have called on the council to change the way it allocates resources for additional support needs.

Previously based on individual needs at a specific school, funding is now determined by deprivation levels in the local area.

Yvonne MacRae of the Kinlochbervie High School Parent Council said that this is disadvantaging rural schools that are forced to provide makeshift support.

“Staff have to prioritise which pupils they have time to work with.

“This is having an unavoidable impact on our pupils with learning support needs.

“Pupils are falling behind in subjects simply because there are not enough learning assistants to support them in class, it is certainly not Getting It Right For Every Child.”

In response to the parents' letter, a government spokesman said that local authorities are individually responsible for recruiting and retaining staff. 

A spokeswoman for Highland Council said that the size of its school estate, the largest in Scotland, creates challenges that vary across communities which themselves differ greatly in size.

The council follows a staffing formula which is set out in its devolved school management plan, she said.

"The Highland Council has two levels of staffing formula to ensure that our smaller secondary schools have the staff required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum to meet the requirements of curriculum for excellence."

“In addition to the allocated staffing formula, each school will have an allocation of Pupil Equity Funding which they can also use to engage additional staffing."

The council offers a relocation package of up to £6,500 to some incoming staff, though the exact details are tied to individual job postings.

Each school will also conduct individual staff planning before each school year, she added, and jobs are advertised as permanent "wherever possible".

"We are also currently investing in a comprehensive leadership programme for newly appointed Head Teachers as well as teachers at other levels to encourage retention and growth of staff across our schools.

"We currently provide some online provision for a small number of interrupted learners and senior phase pupils undertaking advanced higher courses. To build on the success of this, we are in discussion with Head Teachers to potentially provide a more progressive senior phase offering.”