A community group in Dumfries and Galloway has accused their council of the “managed decline” of a local school and is calling for a vote on its future to be delayed.

Members of the Glenkens and District Community Action Plan Steering Group have hit out at the council’s “mothballing process” at Dalry Secondary School and demanded that “further discussion” takes place between the community, council departments and local representatives.

A spokesperson for the local parent council described the current plans as “a financially driven attack” on schools and communities.

Dalry Secondary School was previously an all-through school but in 2016 the primary and secondary were separated, with the latter becoming the responsibility of the headteacher at Castle Douglas High School, located 16 miles away. Campaigners claim that this change, and a subsequent lack of interest in their community, has precipitated the continued decline of the school roll.

The community group has now accused the council of engaging in an “accelerated mothballing process” which they say “appears to be being deliberately used by the education department to sidestep the need to formally consult on closure".

Government rules, which were updated around a decade ago, include a presumption against school closures and set more stringent conditions for councils wishing to shut down a rural school – but these regulations do not apply to mothballing.

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Locals say that the council’s action “will not just disadvantage the young people and communities of the Glenkens, but potentially all of our small rural schools.” They warn that the closure of Dalry Secondary School will ‘accelerate’ the population problems affecting the area, and that such an action would be “in direct opposition to the Local Outcomes Improvement Plan".

Community members are also unhappy that a decision in this case appears to be “one for the education committee alone” – they call this a “silo approach” and say that it is “outdated and does not recognise or indeed respect the voice of our community in such an important decision".

Ultimately, they accuse the council of a “managed decline” of Dalry Secondary School, pointing to a gradual reduction in subject choices for student, a “lack of enthusiasm” to consider “innovative ways to retain secondary education facilities at Dalry”, and the “imposition of a mothballing timetable” based on questionable data.

The council recently ran an “Engagement Survey”, which was open for a four week period that included the Christmas and New Year holidays. The survey received 130 responses, the overwhelming majority from people living in the current catchment area for the school.

Five options were open to parents.

Option one was no change to the current arrangements, but more than half of parents rejected that proposal.

The second option was to change the school into one that caters only to S1 and S2 pupils, with those in S3 and above being educated elsewhere, but more than two-thirds of respondents felt that this would be a negative development.

Altering the current arrangements to create a school serving pupils from nursery age through to the end of S2, all under a single headteacher, was supported by 41% of respondents and rejected by 33%.

The fourth option presented to the community was ‘secondary closure and realignment’ – this was opposed by 59% of those taking part and supported by just 28%.

The final option, to create a school catering for pupils from nursery up to the end of S4, all under a dedicated headteacher, was not originally included by the council, who only added it after a request by parents. This proposal was the only one to gain majority support, with nearly three-quarters of respondents regarding it as a positive option.

The council confirmed that a vote on the future of the school will take place but declined to confirm the date on which this will happen. However, The Herald has seen communications from the council confirming that a decision will be made on the 14th of March.

A separate letter from the current headteacher to parents states that “the decision taken by the Head of Education is to recommend…that Dalry Secondary is mothballed for session 2024-25".

Emily Wall, depute of Dalry Parent Council, called for action to increase the school roll at Dalry Secondary rather than mothballing, saying: “What’s concerning for not only this community but other rural communities in Scotland is that this feels somewhat like a financially driven attack on our rural communities, and our small local schools.

“At the recent meeting the education department referred to 'their principles' for education, which are based upon a model requiring class sizes of approximately 30 in order to be applied. Dalry Secondary has never, in its recent history at least, had class sizes approaching this figure and yet it has previously successfully delivered quality education to a plethora of students - including Gillian Brydson, Director of Skills, Education and Learning for Dumfries and Galloway Council.

"The Parent council and the wider community appreciate the support received to date from members of the education committee, our ward councillors, our MSP Finlay Carson, and also from director of local company Natural Power Consultants Ltd, Jeremy Sainsbury OBE FRICS. We intend to continue exploring all options other than mothballing or closure and hope that together with the education department we can develop a positive future for our wonderful remote rural school. 

“There are currently 69 students in Dalry’s secondary catchment area and only a small percentage of that number attend Dalry, so we need to work on bringing that figure up. Those students who do attend do so because they, and their parents, believe this is the best educational experience for them - excellent teaching in small classes in a community-based setting.

“Focus should now be upon how to attract all catchment pupils back into their local school. Let's work on ways to improve the education offered in our area – we know that the potential is there, it just needs the vision and drive by management and education officials to enable it to happen.”

Councillor Dougie Campbell, who represents the area on Dumfries and Galloway Council, told The Herald that he plans to oppose the “devastating” plans.

He said: “Rural Galloway feels under siege. We provide the nation electricity, forestry, milk, beef, lamb and seafood but it seems we’re always first in line for cuts to local services, whether that’s health care, policing, banks or post offices. And now it’s the turn of school education.    

“I can’t in all conscience support a recommendation to mothball Dalry Secondary, which will be devastating for the growing local economy and efforts to halt rural decline. All we want is our young people to have equal access to local, high-quality education close to home. Not spend up to two hours a day in a bus shuttling back and forward to another secondary school.”

The Herald approached Dumfries and Galloway Council and requested a response to the accusations made by the parents group. We also asked if the council would consider the calls to delay a decision on mothballing Dalry Secondary School and ensure that the full impact on the community is being considered.

A spokesperson for Dumfries and Galloway Council said: “A meeting was held on Monday 29 January, and the engagement survey results were shared with those in attendance. Options on how the secondary school asset and the future of those undertaking learning in the school catchment were discussed, and a paper will be taken to a future meeting of the Education & Learning Committee, for Elected Members to decide on the preferred option.”