Parents publish case for saving North Bute Primary

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THE parent council at North Bute Primary in Port Bannatyne has published a detailed argument which they hope will persuade members of Argyll and Bute Council to reject a proposal to close the school.

Their case, which has been sent to every one of the area’s 36 councillors, argues that retention of North Bute is critical to the ability of the island’s parents to choose a separate, non-denominational education for their children – and that closing the school will cost the council money without any clear evidence of an educational benefit in return.

Argyll and Bute officials were presented on Friday with a detailed plan to upgrade the North Bute school buildings at a projected cost of £230,119 – less than a third of the £807,477 the authority says is needed to bring the infrastructure up to the required standard.

The parent council’s case also presents figures on school rolls and population projections which paint a very different picture to that contained in Argyll and Bute’s own closure proposal, showing that the island’s two small primaries – St Andrew’s and North Bute – have seen a steadily rising share of the island’s primary age children over the last five years.

Their argument also makes use of analysis by the Scottish Rural Schools Network to take issue with Argyll and Bute’s claim that North Bute Primary, with three classrooms and a general purpose (GP) room, has a notional capacity of 114 pupils; instead the parent council says the school is actually capable of accommodating only 75.

The parents’ case also asks why, if over-capacity is such a critical issue, the primary unit at Rothesay Joint Campus was designed with a capacity of 474 pupils, yet opened its doors in 2008 to only 279 – an occupancy rate of 59 per cent which even the council’s own figures state has declined since then.

In addition, they say that any argument about the educational benefit of amalgamating North Bute with Rothesay Joint Campus is undermined by the fact that Rothesay Primary has not undergone an inspection by HMIE since 2001 – with a supplementary visit in 2003 – despite a major change to its management structure in 2008.

The parent council concludes its case by saying: “Three principles have guided the NBPSPC’s campaign to preserve North Bute Primary School.

“First, that we should adopt a responsible and collaborative approach rather than a confrontational one; our case is unique in that we are not campaigning to preserve the status quo – our building is not fit for purpose – on the contrary, we share an interest with the council in improving the building, within financial constraints, to everyone’s benefit.

“We believe that our proposals will not only deliver a building fit for our wonderful little school, it will also deliver significant long term cost savings to the council, thus meeting its current over-riding policy objective.

“Secondly, we see this as an issue for the whole island, not just for the village of Port Bannatyne. North Bute Primary represents a critical choice in primary education which is increasingly valued by the island community as well as by those considering moving to it from outside. Fifty per cent of the current roll and 75 per cent of the 2011 intake lives outwith the school’s catchment area.

“Thirdly, we have never seen mere survival as an end in itself but as the beginning to a very bright future as part of a reviving and growing community. With the school’s future secured, we have every hope of raising the school roll to an optimum level of 60-65 pupils, at which level the cost per pupil, even without GAE advantage, will fall to below the county average.

“The school community will apply the same commitment and energy to the school’s development as it has to this campaign.

“We ask councillors to vote against North Bute Primary School’s proceeding to formal consultation so that the school community can plan for this bright future without the constraint and distraction of defending its very existence.”

Argyll and Bute Council’s 36 members will be asked on Tuesday to consider 15 separate amalgamation proposals in respect of 12 primaries, and to decide whether those proposals should be put out to statutory public consultation.

* The case for retaining North Bute, as set out by the school’s parent council, is as follows.

A. North Bute Primary School’s Place within Primary Education Provision on Bute.

Argyll and Bute’s proposal to rationalise primary education on Bute by consolidating the facilities of North Bute and Rothesay Primary schools on a single site at Rothesay, is based on a fundamental assumption that demographic decline has been experienced by both schools, creating over-capacity on each site. Consolidation is proposed to create a single school operating nearer to optimum capacity.

The following analysis of the roll outcomes in recent years for the three island primary schools, to give a true context, reveals a very different and more complex reality.

Rothesay Primary school roll: 309 (Aug 2006), 285 (Aug 07), 279 (Aug 08), 243 (Aug 09), 233 (Aug 10), 233 (Aug 11, projected.

St Andrew’s Primary roll: 85 (Aug 06), 91 (Aug 07), 108 (Aug 08), 97 (Aug 09), 107 (Aug 10), 107 (est) (Aug 11, projected).

North Bute roll: 60 (Aug 06), 56 (Aug 07), 51 (Aug 08), 55 (Aug 09), 51 (Aug 10), 55 (Aug 11, projected).

Total island roll: 454 (Aug 06), 432 (Aug 07), 438 (Aug 08), 395 (Aug 09), 391 (Aug 10), 395 (Aug 11, projected).

Rothesay Primary as % of total island roll: 68.1 (Aug 06), 66 (Aug 07), 63.7 (Aug 08), 61.5 (Aug 09), 59.6 (Aug 10), 59 (Aug 11, projected).

St Andrews as % of total island roll: 18.7 (Aug 06), 21.0 (Aug 07), 24.7 (Aug 08), 24.6 (Aug 09), 27.4 (Aug 10), 27.0 (Aug 11, projected).

North Bute as % of total island roll: 13.2 (Aug 06), 13.0 (Aug 07), 11.6 (Aug 08), 13.9 (Aug 09), 13.0 (Aug 10), 14.0 (Aug 11, projected).

The key features are as follows.

Over the five years 2006/10, the total island roll has fallen by 63 pupils (-14%).

Over that same period, the roll of Rothesay Primary has fallen by 76 pupils (-25%).

By way of contrast, the roll of St Andrew’s has risen significantly (+26%); that of North Bute Primary has held broadly steady, fluctuating between 50 and 60 pupils.

Rothesay Primary experienced an unbroken, year-on-year decline in its share of the total island roll from 68.1% in 2006 to 59.6% in 2010. St Andrew’s Primary’s share has increased significantly, whereas North Bute’s has held steady at 13-14%, despite the long-perceived threat of closure.

On a longer-term perspective, the trend is confirmed. In the case of North Bute Primary, the roll is higher today than it was when last faced with the threat of closure in 1995, its share of the island total having almost doubled.

Clearly, this paints a very different picture from that presented in the council’s proposal documents to date.

We make no qualitative judgement on the reasons for the severe decline in the proposed receiving school’s share of the island roll. However, it is absolutely clear that the Isle of Bute cherishes the ability to choose a distinct and separate primary education for its children as an alternative to the seamless, 3-18 education offered by Rothesay Primary as part of the Joint Campus (mooted from 2005/6 and opened in August 2008).

North Bute Primary School is critical in this choice, offering the only option of a defined, non-denominational primary education. The projected roll for 2011 session confirms this. Having received 12 applications in the recently completed registration period, North Bute’s roll is projected to rise to 55. This is a powerful statement of faith in a school under threat of closure.

Of the 12 applications, eight were received from outside the school’s catchment area and one from a family moving to the island, again demonstrating the value of choice. 50% of the current roll lives outwith the catchment area.

So, North Bute Primary is not experiencing the sort of structural decline implied in the proposal documents to date to justify closure. On the contrary, North Bute is a school in demand, valued by the island as a whole and increasing its share of the island roll under challenging circumstances.

B. Capacity, Occupancy and Cost per Pupil

Para 2.1 of the council’s proposal document of April 2011 states “there are now too many schools within the council’s area for the size of pupil population”.

North Bute Primary is deemed to be under-occupied at a projected occupancy level of 47%. This is based on a notional capacity of 114. This is not true.

As appears from para. 3.4 of the report prepared by the Scottish Rural Schools Network which was considered at a special council meeting on January 5, 2011, A&BC’s calculation of capacity is wrong and at variance with the approach taken by other local authorities.

In fact, the capacity is 75, calculated on the realistic basis that North Bute Primary School has three classrooms and a GP room. The projected roll for 2011/12 is 55 pupils, to give an occupancy rate of 73%, not 47%.

Any common-sense view of space definition at NBPS makes the stated capacity self-evidently absurd and anomalous. SRSN has further conducted a comprehensive analysis of capacity within 46 Scottish primary schools with internal floor space of between 381sq.m and 414sq.m (ie within 5% either side of NBP). Average capacity is 55.4. Of the 46, only two schools have capacities in excess of 75: Tongue (81) and NBP (114).

Further, given the critical place that overcapacity is given within the review of the school estate, we would ask councillors to question officials as to their policy priorities when commissioning the design and construction of Rothesay Primary unit at the Joint Campus which opened in 2008 with a capacity of 474 pupils, yet opened its doors to just 279; an initial occupancy rate of 59%.

The council’s proposal document states “the costs per pupil in under occupied schools are excessively high”.

The cost per pupil at North Bute Primary, net of GAE, is £1,453, rising to £4,044 on amalgamation (para 3.3).

C. The Financial Implications of Closure

We set out below the financial benefit to Argyll and Bute Council in retaining a refurbished North Bute Primary within the school estate.

Annual costs as follows.

Staff Saving Forgone - £137,013pa.

Property Saving Forgone - £17,090.

Interest Cost - £18,674.

Annual savings as follows.

Transport costs saved - £38,000.

GAE Retained - £151,352.

Net benefit on retention - £16,575.

% annual return on total borrowed – 4.7%.

This outcome is based on the following:

A&B Council borrows £230,119 to fund improvements to building.

Sum borrowed from Public Works Loan Board on annuity basis over 19 years.

Total sum (principal and interest) repaid over life of loan.

NB. £283,000 has already been allocated to this project in prior years’ capital budgets. From this sum £55,000 has already been expended, largely on professional fees to bring project to tender stage.

GAE calculated on +/-£2,750 per pupil on projected roll of 55.

So, we would ask councillors to view the purely financial implications in ‘business plan’ terms. That is, Argyll and Bute uses its borrowing facilities to invest responsibly in order to secure a long-term, substantial income stream from central government that would otherwise be lost.

The commercial case for so doing is compelling. The refurbishment of our school ceases to be a potential burden and becomes a secure and attractive investment opportunity, achieving a positive annual return well in excess of current investment norms.

We believe that the projected return of 4.7% understates the true position since the latest proposal makes no allowance for increased fuel costs in its transport cost projection.

We would urge councillors to seek clarification from council officers on the following points:

The projected staff saving in the April proposal has risen from £89,987 to £137,013, an increase of £47,026 or at least one full-time teaching post. How does this produce a demonstrable ‘educational benefit’? Also,are these savings limited to the amalgamated school unit or do they apply to council finances as a whole?

Although staff savings have been re-visited, transport costs have not, despite a substantial increase in fuel costs since first calculated. Why?

If closing North Bute results in a clear cost to Argyll and Bute Council, and if the prime policy objective is to implement savings, who precisely will bear the additional burden which could be avoided by retention?

D. The Viable Alternative: Cost-Effective Renovation of the School Building

From the outset, North Bute Primary School Parent Council has recognised the necessity to upgrade the school building from its current Grade D status and has been anxious to work with Argyll and Bute Council to deliver a safe and appropriate learning environment for our children, within the budgeted sum.

In doing so, we not only retain a much-valued school to the long term benefit of the island, but the council will also be spared the significant cost of closure, thus better meeting its own policy obligations.

On February 7, 2011, representatives of the NBPSPC met at the school, with Argyll & Bute’s property services manager and project architect, together with authorised local contractors, its appointed building surveyor, the school headteacher and the island’s three elected councillors.

The purpose of the meeting was to present alternative proposals to create an upgraded building within the already-allocated budget.

In brief, the proposals were as follows.

* Integrate the school functions within the main building and utilise all floor space for educational purposes.

* Retain the front ‘hut’ and use as a school dining room/community outreach outlet (potential for rental income with interest already expressed from local community groups).

* Upgrade main school building and toilet facilities as required.

* Retain the proposal for a single, mandatory disabled ramp but delete the existing proposal for a second ramp.

* Scope for ‘de-specification’ of certain materials.

* Review of provisional sums and revisit tender levels in the light of current market conditions.

The meeting was a purposeful and positive one and the school representatives are grateful for the courteous and receptive response they received from the council representatives. It was agreed that NBPSPC would commission alternative drawings, based on the council’s original outline plan, for submission, initially to Argyll & Bute property services department, for its consideration in conjunction with the education department. NBPSPC commissioned Brown & Wallace Associates, Building Surveyors, to this end.

On April 15, 2011 a second meeting took place at which Brown and Wallace presented their detailed plans to council officials to uprade the school building as required at a projected cost of £230,119. Again, the meeting was constructive and positive on all sides with no substantive disagreement; only matters of detail were questioned.

These proposals are now with Argyll & Bute Council for further consideration. The viable alternative is clear; simply retain and upgrade the building within existing budgeted sums.

E. Education Benefit

In the context of section 3(2) of the Standards in Scotland’s Schools Act 2000, the council is entitled to propose the closure of North Bute Primary School only if it is ‘certain’ that this proposal will result in the ‘raising of educational standards’.

On any view, that test has not been satisfied. No relevant standards of education have ever been identified and, even if they were, it cannot be said to be certain that they would be raised by this proposal.

Moreover, the statutory guidance issued under section 19 of the Act requires that a local authority’s reasons for believing that the proposal would have educational benefits ‘should be supported by evidence’. No such evidence has been presented to date.

Our view is that the council’s presentations to date have been entirely subjective, indeed tendentious, value judgements with no basis in fact, experience or – most importantly – objective scrutiny. It is critical that Rothesay Primary School has not undergone an HMI inspection since 2001 (supplementary visit 2003) despite the introduction of an entirely new management structure in 2008. The effectiveness of the joint campus educational model is therefore entirely unexamined at this stage.

On the other hand, it is evident that North Bute Primary School provides a distinct education of quality to the entire community of Bute. This is borne out by its recent HMI report and by wider measures of success, not least its increasing roll, despite the threat of closure.

A detailed review of the ‘small school’ debate has revealed numerous theoretical advantages associated with this education model: small class sizes, quality of teaching, enhanced community involvement. All these are evident at North Bute. Its highly motivated teaching staff includes an English graduate, a noted local historian and a research degree applied metallurgist all committed to inspiring primary level learning

In terms of delivery of the Curriculum for Excellence there is no inherent advantage or disadvantage related to school size, or age of building fabric. It is indeed arguable that North Bute is an ideal model for delivery in many aspects.

It is claimed that North Bute’s children are currently disadvantaged by virtue of their being part of an unnaturally narrow peer group. We argue that, by contrast, our children have the distinct advantage of interacting with the full school community. Older children respect and care for their younger counterparts, mentoring their development quite naturally. Younger children are at ease with their elders as a result and instinctively assume a guiding role as they rise through the school in turn. A conspicuously happy school is the result, seen most clearly in full-school musical productions in which every pupil plays a part.

By way of forest school education ( to support the community forest buy-out), the achievement of Green Flag status by way of a new community garden and through pre and after – school activities, the school has provided examples of its working together with community groups to mutual benefit. This inter-dependency was made abundantly clear at the recent pre-consultation at which Port Bannatyne spoke with one voice about the school’s importance to the local and wider community.

F. Travelling Arrangements

Earlier proposal documents set out Argyll and Bute Council’s policy that no pupil’s journey to or from school should take longer than 45 minutes. The April 2011 proposal document states “the maximum travel time for a child attending Rothesay Joint Campus (Primary) as a result of this proposal would be around 37 minutes”.

This we dispute. The North Bute-Rothesay JC journey report records trial journeys undertaken on November 5, 2010 and December 15, 2010. Journey 1 took 58 minutes (adjusted to 39 mins by A&BC). Journey 2 was recorded at 37 mins. However, both journey times are artificial and misleading since they commenced at 10.21am and 11.47am respectively, thus avoiding the very congestion which school traffic creates.

We await a response from the council in respect of our request for a verification exercise to be carried out on terms agreed between Argyll and Bute Council and NBPSPC.

G. Conclusion

Three principles have guided the NBPSPC’s campaign to preserve North Bute Primary School.

First, that we should adopt a responsible and collaborative approach rather than a confrontational one; our case is unique in that we are not campaigning to preserve the status quo – our building is not fit for purpose – on the contrary, we share an interest with the council in improving the building, within financial constraints, to everyone’s benefit.

We believe that our proposals will not only deliver a building fit for our wonderful little school, it will also deliver significant long term cost savings to the council, thus meeting its current over-riding policy objective.

Secondly, we see this as an issue for the whole island, not just for the village of Port Bannatyne. North Bute Primary represents a critical choice in primary education which is increasingly valued by the island community as well as by those considering moving to it from outside. Fifty per cent of the current roll and 75% of the 2011 intake lives outwith the school’s catchment area.

Thirdly, we have never seen mere survival as an end in itself but as the beginning to a very bright future as part of a reviving and growing community. With the school’s future secured, we have every hope of raising the school roll to an optimum level of 60-65 pupils, at which level the cost per pupil, even without GAE advantage, will fall to below the county average. The school community will apply the same commitment and energy to the school’s development as it has to this campaign.

We ask councillors to vote against North Bute Primary School’s proceeding to formal Consultation so that the school community can plan for this bright future without the constraint and distraction of defending its very existence.