Schools in the Highlands could lose more than a quarter of their pupils in 15 years without "substantial in-migration of working age families", experts have warned.

Using the latest Census data for guidance, Highland Council is forecasting an overall 23% fall in pupil numbers across its 29 secondary schools in the 15 years to 2038/39 with some predicted to experience greater decline.

A drop of 7% was being predicted only a year ago.

Experts in demographic change say the problem is not limited to the Highlands and there are Scotland-wide issues at play but described the situation in the north as "dire".

In the West Highlands, which takes in Kinlochleven and Kinlochbervie, rolls could fall by as much as 27%.

The Herald: Kinlochbervie school Kinlochbervie school (Image: Denise MacDonald)

The region's best performing’ school, Culloden Academy, is forecast to see a 10% decline, and the only other school at less than 20% is Kinlochbervie at 15%, and its roll is forecast to fall to 23 pupils.

The five Inverness secondaries are predicted to lose 20% of their pupils, while the decline in the rest of the Highlands is forecast to be 25%.

The 2022 Scotland Census found that the Highland population had increased by 1.4% since 2011 and that 23.7% were aged 65 or over, compared with 2.7% and 20.1% respectively for Scotland as a whole.

A Highland Council spokesman said: “It should be remembered that these are simply forecasts based on current build programmes.

"They do not reflect the impacts of measures we are proposing to support major economic developments, for which housing and infrastructure are being proactively considered.

"The forecasts are reviewed annually, and they will respond to and plan for such measures.”

Professor David Bell of the Stirling Management School at the University of Stirling and an expert in demographic change, said: “The forecast decline in pupil numbers is extremely worrying for the sustainability of the populations in the North and West Highlands.

"Without substantial in-migration of working-age families, the process is cumulative, with each generation smaller than the last – leading to irrevocable social, economic and cultural decline.

The Herald: Professor David Bell described the predications as worryingProfessor David Bell described the predications as worrying (Image: David Bell)

“A return to the levels of working-age inmigration that the Highlands experienced in the early 2000s is unlikely in the present political climate: other solutions have to be found."

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) set up the project Shrinking Smartly and Sustainably in February 2023 to look at how depopulation leads to a mismatch between infrastructure, service provision and the built environment.

"This project can provide valuable lessons for our policymakers," said Prof Bell.

“However, the scope for public sector solutions to population decline will be limited for the foreseeable future due to the Highland Council’s financial constraints.

"Increasing emphasis on community-based and private sector solutions, with Highland Council’s role limited mainly to that of a facilitator, is inevitable.”

"Forecasts are only forecasts, but these represent Highland Council’s best attempt, and we must take them seriously – while at the same time hoping that time proves them wrong," added David Richardson, development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses Highlands & Islands.

"For Highland schools as a whole to lose around a quarter of their pupils in 15 years is very frightening indeed.

"Could sounds of babies crying and children playing in our rural villages eventually become a rarity, and what are the consequences if they do?

The Herald:

“The visitor economy dominates much of our region and it has experienced an ever-worsening staffing shortage for years, FSB surveys finding that while a third of all business on Skye were short-staffed in 2016, the situation had deteriorated to six in ten in the Highlands in 2022.

"The result? Many short-staffed businesses have been forced to cut opening hours, the range of services they offer, or both to survive, and this can inevitably impact on customers’ perceptions of value for money and of the Highlands as a place to visit and do business."

He said the creation of the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Freeport (ICFGF) was "a once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to create thousands of jobs in the Highlands but said this raised its own questions.

He said: "With school rolls forecast to decline so starkly and new jobs being created, where will the workers come from to fill the many new posts, let-alone old?

"Will existing workers be lured into working for Freeport businesses instead, and what will the knock-on impact on existing businesses be?

"Will more home-grown young people be persuaded to stay on to take advantage of the opportunities?

"Will workers from outwith the Highlands, especially those with young families, be attracted to move here to live?


“Lots of questions, but at the end of the day the Highlands needs more people of working age to fill the vacancies and create the economically and socially vibrant and sustainable communities that we need.

"For this to happen we must provide appropriate and affordable accommodation, decent medical and educational services, decent retail, hospitality and recreational facilities, decent transport and digital connectivity, and last but not least, decent career prospects."

David Whiteford, chairman of Highland Coast Hotels, added: "As with Highland businesses in general, we seek to give our target markets the best possible quality, service and value-for-money, and attempting to do so when understaffed presents massive challenges."