Freedom of Information (FOI) figures obtained by The Ferret show that between April 2018 and February this year, 20 schools were mothballed and 20 were permanently closed, with 15 others at risk.
Most closures have taken place in rural areas, which may be more vulnerable to depopulation and population ageing. Young people and people of working age are needed to fill all the necessary roles and sustain these communities.
Our findings come days after rural exodus was discussed in the Scottish Parliament when the Scottish Government was asked what it was doing to tackle the problem.
Rural MSPs said The Ferret’s “alarming” figures are “clear indicators of communities or villages in crisis”. Some have accused the Scottish Government of making public spending cuts that they say are having a “disproportionate impact” on rural and remote communities.
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The Scottish Government said its own figures showed that 12 rural schools had been closed, 21 mothballed and seven rural schools opened since 2018, while others may have merged.
An anti-depopulation strategy was published in 2021 and a new anti-depopulation plan will be published in the fall, it said.
Official statistics predict that by 2045 the number of children in Scotland will fall by more than a fifth and the number of people over 65 will increase by almost a third.
Rural and island communities tend to be the hardest hit by depopulation in Scotland, although this trend is being reversed, fueled by urban-rural migration amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to individual local authorities, 11 schools in the Highland Council area have been mothballed or closed permanently in the last five years, eight in Argyll, six in Aberdeenshire and three each in Dumfries, Galloway and Perthshire.
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One or more schools were also closed or mothballed in Stirlingshire, the Western Isles, Angus, Falkirk, Shetland, Moray and Fife.
Due to the low number of students, 15 other schools are threatened with closure. Blackness school, near Falkirk – plus two schools the council did not name – and Tundergarth school in Dumfriesshire may be mothballed.
Aberdeen City Council plans to close some of the 11 schools in the Bridge of Don and Northfield areas. Aberdeen is the only Scottish city where a local authority is considering such a move.
In March, The Ferret reported that parents on the Inner Hebridean island of Luing were fighting the closure of their defunct local primary school. Locals branded the school the “heart of the community” and warned that a permanent closure could displace young families and fuel brain drain.
Children currently have to travel to Easdale Primary School on the neighboring island of Seil, or to Kilninver on the mainland – a journey that consists of two buses and a short ferry crossing each way. On 8 June Argyll and Bute Council’s Community Services Committee voted to open a consultation to permanently close the school from 31 May 2024.
Councils follow different guidelines when it comes to making decisions about closing or shutting down schools. For example, Aberdeenshire City Council will consider closing a primary school if the number falls to eight pupils or fewer.
Dumfries and Galloway monitors schools that have 50 per cent or fewer pupils enrolled than each school’s capacity allows. In 2017, the list of schools on this council list reached 26.
Scotland’s population development
According to Office for National Statistics data analyzed by National Record of Scotland, Scotland’s population will peak in 2028 before beginning to decline, largely due to lower birth rates.
Scotland’s population could fall by 1.5 per cent over the next 25 years, while the UK’s overall population could grow by 5.8 per cent. Depopulation occurs when more people leave an area than move or return, and when deaths exceed births.
If past trends continue, Scotland could have 200,000 fewer children by 2045 – a 22 per cent drop – and 300,000 more people over 65 – a 30 per cent increase.
In their responses to a Scottish Government consultation, the islanders said depopulation was the biggest problem they faced. The availability of schools was a frequently cited factor, as was access to childcare, agricultural land, health care, good internet and infrastructure, employment, training, care, public transport, higher education, affordable housing and fuel.
Some rural communities ‘stuck in crisis’
Opposition MSPs representing rural constituencies have raised concerns about the school closures and the impact on their communities.
Scottish Conservatives have accused the government of “savage cuts” in local government and a focus on the central belt, which they say is having “a disproportionate impact on rural and remote communities”.
“These numbers show that it is our young people who are paying the price,” argued Jamie Halcro Johnston, an MSP for Tory Highlands and Islands. “This goes against the fact that education is a top priority for the SNP and is deeply damaging to the rural economy.”
He added: “If something as important as a school isn’t easily accessible, then people are just pushed out of rural areas and others aren’t encouraged to come and live there.”
Rhoda Grant, Labor MP for the Highlands and Islands Labor Party, also targeted the government. “Due to their continued disregard for our rural and island communities, young families are being forced out of the area, putting our culture and heritage at risk,” she claimed.
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Grant accused the government of “cuts in community organisations, a lack of childcare policies, measures and support, an inability to provide and protect essential services and little support for the sustainability of our rural towns and areas”.
Ariane Burgess, MSP of the Highlands and Islands Green MSP, said school closures are “clear indicators of communities or villages in crisis” and “part of a larger picture of depopulation and decline in the countryside”.
“Communities should have the means to shape their own futures, but that won’t happen without the people and resources to do so,” she added.
“This alarming data not only underscores the need for quality local services and transportation, but also underscores the urgent need for more quality rural homes that people can afford.”
The Scottish Government said local authorities were responsible for schools but had tightened legislation in 2014 to ensure local authorities show they have considered all alternatives to closing a rural school.
“They are also required to publish an impact assessment detailing how the closure of the school will affect the local community and how it will affect student travel arrangements,” a government spokesman said.
They added: “Like many advanced countries, Scotland faces a number of long-term population challenges and we know these are particularly acute in some remote, rural and island areas.” It is for this reason that in 2021 the Scottish Government released Scotland’s first population strategy.
“Rural areas need tailored solutions and our action plan to tackle depopulation will provide the Scottish Government and partners with ways to enable population retention and repopulation in rural and island communities.”