Councillors in Dumfries and Galloway are due to vote on a motion to suspend plans to mothball a local school. Our education writer spent a day travelling through the area to find out how people feel about the council's proposals.

Into Dumfries & Galloway

As soon as you’re south of Dalmellington the road tightens a little and starts to twist more earnestly as it cuts its path through the hills. Then you sweep around a long, right-hand bend and the sky stretches out in front of you as Ayrshire gives way to the considerable expanses of Dumfries and Galloway.

Within minutes of crossing the council boundary I have pulled over at the side of the road to wait for Belinda, who is coming to guide me down the track towards her home near Knockengorroch. She arrives soon after in a huge 4x4 which I dutifully follow along the narrow strip of tarmac winding its way down towards the valley floor, and I immediately find myself wondering what it’s like to try to drive this road during the winter.

Belinda’s son attends Dalry Secondary School. Their home is near the most northerly edge of the catchment area, so the council’s plans to transfer pupils to Castle Douglas, which would almost double the distance between them and their allegedly local school, would have a major impact on the time he has to spend travelling each day.

READ MORE: Dalry parents claim council is closing rural school 'by stealth'

“They don’t care,” she says of the local council. “They’re not interested. It’s just about the money.”

She explains that they already have to leave the house at 7.30am each day in order to meet the school bus – and asks why her son should have to travel for up to four hours a day to complete his education.

Ultimately, she feels that the council has been "planning this for a while", drawing a line from the introduction of a shared headteacher through the decline in subject provision to the falling school roll and, ultimately, to proposals to mothball the school and send the pupils elsewhere.

The council's approach to engaging with parents, she adds, "feels like a sham."


I leave Belinda and head off for the village of Carsphairn which, once I have returned to the main road, is about five miles south. It is a tiny, traditional settlement consisting almost entirely of a single road with rows of houses and a handful of shops lining either side.

Until a few years ago, Carsphairn had a primary school that was part of the catchment for Dalry Secondary; today, however, the building looks entirely lifeless and utterly abandoned.

I am joined by Sylvia, a local woman who tells me about the circumstances that brought the school to its current situation.

In 2019 the primary school was mothballed because it simply didn’t have any pupils, so keeping it open was obviously impossible. But in the years that have followed, a number of children who were then of pre-school age have – as children do – grown older, meaning that a small cohort of pupils would now be possible.

Nonetheless, the school remains closed, with much of it sealed away behind firmly-secured wooden boards.

READ MORE: Dalry parents fight to save school from mothballing plans

We walk around the side of the building into what used to be the playground, the rear of which opens out to the tumbling fields and rolling hills that surround the village. Brightly painted walls remain visible, a basketball hoop still stands at the edge of the grass, and in a sign that this place hasn’t been completely forgotten, a child’s scooter lies on its side near the climbing frame, waiting for its owner to retrieve it. It’s easy to imagine a group of children playing here, the sounds of their games and excitement and arguments reverberating out into the wide open spaces beyond. It makes the silence even heavier.

Sylvia tells me about efforts to “regenerate” Carsphairn, making use of funds from the multiple nearby windfarms to attract new people (especially families) to the area, but worries that the boarded-up school building presents a significant barrier to those plans. It’s hard to disagree with that belief, or with the view that this school has been closed rather than mothballed.

As I leave the village to continue south I realise that the school-crossing sign has not (yet) been removed. Some may regard this as a sign that the school might still have a future, but standing there, looking back along that road, it feels more like a symbol of abandonment.

The Herald: The village of Carsphairn, Dumfries and Galloway, where the primary school was mothballed in 2019The village of Carsphairn, Dumfries and Galloway, where the primary school was mothballed in 2019 (Image: James McEnaney)


My next stop is a few miles north of Dalry, at a new and very beautiful house standing proudly between the road and the still grey water of Earlstoun Loch. I’m here to meet the owner, John Paterson, who also the chair of the Glenkens & District Community Action Plan Steering Group, as well as Sarah Ade, who is both a member of that group and the local parent council.

Over a cup of tea and some lunch we discuss the situation facing their community, and it quickly becomes clear that neither believes that the council has really been listening to the people who actually live here. What is equally clear, however, is that they are not opposed to changes in the area – quite the opposite.

The Glenkens, they tell me, needs to change, but is being held back by a council that, instead of looking for ways to encourage positive developments, has displayed a “lack of aspiration for the whole area.” I hear about plans to build new homes, and the intention to attract families with young children, but this is contrasted with the hard reality that some local parents are now considering moving out of the area if the mothballing plans for Dalry Secondary are successful.

Rather than closing their school, they want to see the council engage in a “grown up discussion” about the future of the entire area, with a view of reversing population decline and tapping into the considerable natural resources available to them.

READ MORE: Dalry school mothballing decision delayed by local council

A little further down the road I meet Sharon and Harriett, both of whom are parents of current and, they hope, future pupils of Dalry Secondary School. I meet them at Sharon’s home, which despite being just a few minutes outside of Dalry still feels extremely rural and relatively isolated. Her family has lived in the area for generations, and she sees the school as “part of the community”. Closing it is simply unthinkable to her.

Harriett agrees, and adds that the council’s plans will lead to Dalry and the Glenkens becoming “some kind of retirement area – an unbalanced and unsustainable community.”

They also agree that the mothballing proposals, and the way in which the entire situation has been handled, means that their kids have been “made to feel that they don’t matter.”

The Herald: Dalry Secondary School, Dumfries and GallowayDalry Secondary School, Dumfries and Galloway (Image: Andrew Mellor)

Castle Douglas

The area around Dalry feels extremely rural and quite isolated from the rest of the region; in contrast, rolling into Castle Douglas feels like arriving in a fairly substantial, and much more well-connected, small Scottish town. There is a main street, lots of independent shops, and I need to drive around for a few minutes before I find somewhere to park.

I’m here to speak to two current councillors, the first of whom is George Jamieson of the SNP. He has a background first in farming and then in policy work, and the latter really shows: his bag is full of various council papers, and he very much come across the as the sort of person who always does the reading.

Having worked here for so long he also knows the area very well, and talks enthusiastically about its history of agricultural innovation. He is also a strong advocate for the notion that the council can do ‘less but better’, and as a result isn’t entirely or ideologically opposed to the premise of closing, or mothballing, Dalry Secondary School.

READ MORE: Save Our Rural Schools campaign turns the corner

But he will still, after careful consideration, vote in favour of the motion to suspend the mothballing process. He tells me that there is now “a contest between the parents in Dalry and the directorate,” and that just trying to win that kind of conflict isn’t the way forward.

Like so many others I have spoken to, he clearly wants to see things change for the better, and now believes that the current processes, and the animosity they have sparked, are barriers to progress.

Linda Dorward, a Labour councillor, will also support the suspension of the council’s mothballing policy, and tells me that taking part in the recent bus ride through the school catchment area helped her to understand the issues that people in Dalry and the Glenkens are facing.

She suggests that for someone sitting in Dumfries looking only at spreadsheets and policy documents, mothballing Dalry Secondary school might look like the correct approach. But she now believes that other factors need to be taken into account – the most pressing of which is depopulation.

She also warns decisions on matters like this one must be taken by elected representatives with democratic mandates, not unelected council officials, and acknowledges a concern – raised by a number of people I have spoken to earlier in the day – that “officers are taking on more than just an advisory role in some instances.”

Instead of spending more time and energy trying to mothball the school against the wishes of local parents, Linda wants the council to commence a research project looking at how investment in Dalry Secondary School, and a potential expansion of what it offers to pupils and other local people, might help to attract more people to the Glenkens.

“It’s bigger than just the school,” she says. “And this is a big test for us a region.”

And as I drive back towards Glasgow, I get the feeling she’s absolutely right.