My most recent story for The Herald is one that I feel I’ve written before.

After years of battling with the council, parents at four Highland schools have launched a joint campaign to fight understaffing and declining enrollment.

“Rural school in trouble, community rallies to save it” – or something along those lines – is a headline that I’ve had to write at least twice a year since I began covering education, which dates back to my time in the United States.

In fact, my first big scoop as a reporter was when I found out that my local school system in North Carolina was considering closing a 100-year-old school.

They had only a few months to plug a gaping hole in the budget, and this school – which had been a net drain on resources for almost a decade – fit the bill.

It had everything you could hope for in a juicy story: Good intentions gone bad, the potential influence of wealthy landowners, families sharing emotional connections to the school over generations – I spoke to one woman whose parents and grandparents met there – and everyone’s favourite questions over misuse of public money.

Read more: Highland parents say staff policies hurt rural schools

But it also had something that you never enjoy seeing in any story, no matter how much it sells: a grieving community.

As you can guess, the school closed.

Silver lining: It was quickly replaced by a private charter school. Education continues on the campus and properties in the area have retained some of their value.

But the feeling isn’t the same.

The students are no longer necessarily the latest in a long line of families who have been going there for generations.


The Herald: When Oak Hill School in North Carolina closed during the first lockdowns in 2020, it proved to be the last time many students set foot inside.When Oak Hill School in North Carolina closed during the first lockdowns in 2020, it proved to be the last time many students set foot inside. (Image: Garrett Stell)


Over two years covering education in the north of Scotland, and now in my time at The Herald, I've covered multiple versions of this story. 

Although the details change, the key points are normally there. One aspect that's often missing, however, is the silver lining. I haven't seen any private foundations ready to swoop in and start a new service. 

Instead, there's just an empty building and a lot of questions.

Here are the basics: A rural school’s roll is on the decline. It’s often the case of a downward trend over a decade or more.

For a while, the council was happy to bleed a little money to keep the school staffed and the doors open. They recognised its importance to the community, often a community which had already lost enough in terms of people or prestige in recent generations.

Then, something changed, and population decline and staff shortages reached a critical level.

Suddenly, families started leaving the community because of the school. This raised new questions about the value of the education on offer.

In each instance, I entered the story at a different stage in the proceedings.

Sometimes, the school had already been mothballed – a term which meant nothing to me when I came to this country but I quickly learned meant slow, quiet closure – and the council was debating whether to close it for good.

But as the cloud hung over the community and the school, whatever factors started the problem in the first place tended to get worse.

In most cases, families were already leaving the community for a variety of reasons. Once it became clear that the school was in trouble, others who could leave were more likely to.

And once the school does close, locals who might never have left begin to feel they have no choice.

After three or four years of the school sitting empty, often in disrepair, and no new families moving to the area expressing interest in enrolling at an empty building, that final closure vote often felt like a cruel formality.

In other circumstances, I covered the early days.

The situation usually played out something like this: school roll has fallen steadily over several years and the council has sent out a survey to the community with a variety of options. All views are welcome.

Should the school close? Should the school change its provision and cater to different ages and grade levels? Should the school be combined with another one (which may or may not be) nearby?

The last option typically involves a shared head teacher or course sharing so that students can access classes off-campus or online without the need for extra staff.

I’ve seen both versions of the sharing option work and I’ve seen them fail. When it does fail, it’s rarely the fault of the head teacher in question, or the staff at the schools.

The Herald: Ullapool High School parents are battling the council over staffing shortages, but they also believe the future of their school is at stake.Ullapool High School parents are battling the council over staffing shortages, but they also believe the future of their school is at stake. (Image: Denise MacDonald)

In fact, every time I speak to concerned parents who are battling the powers that be to save their beloved but understaffed, shrinking school, there is one phrase that I’ve come to expect.

I wait for it in every conversation, and I make sure it finds a way into every story because it’s a distinction that can – but shouldn’t – get lost when emotions run high.

“Our fight is not with the school.”

They mean: This isn’t about staff not doing their jobs or a headteacher who has hung us out to dry.

Often, the situation involves staff who are not only doing their jobs, they’re also doing someone else’s job.

And all that on top of work that isn’t actually part of anyone’s job – they just want to help.

There are always mitigating factors, and details that need to be included because they speak to a larger issue or give a fairer context to the situation.

In the case of the rural school that closed in North Carolina, one of the reasons that the school system had depleted their savings was the fact that they held to a policy of not laying off staff whenever possible.

Despite changing populations, school rolls and economic circumstances, they paid teachers and staff out of their savings and ran a consistent deficit.   

Once the school was closed, it raised a big question: If there had been small cuts over time, could we have avoided this result?

There’s no way to know.

In a community that was historically decimated by jobs that moved overseas and never returned, keeping local people employed was an understandable principle to hold. But it’s hard to know whether it was the right one.

There are mitigating factors here in Scotland as well. We've reported on the overall decline of teacher numbers in recent years, but that decline hasn’t been uniform across the country.

Adding to that, local authorities in the north and north east are not only losing teachers, they’re struggling to recruit new ones. 

Against a backdrop of inflation and rising costs, Scottish councils are facing budget deficits of over £100 million.

In the end, the financial situation raises big questions about how local authorities value education.

I’ve been told by public officials showing varying degrees of sympathy that small schools –just like libraries, community centres, public pools – are by definition a net drain on funding.

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthwhile.

But it does mean that councils will eventually have to decide whether the benefit is worth the cost.

More and more often, they’re voting no.

And every time they do so, it highlights another key element of this repeating story.

This one stays the same in every iteration, whether it's happening in Moray, Highland Council, Aberdeenshire or the North Carolina foothills: When schools close, communities feel they’ve lost.