A final plea for money for Stornoway Primary

A final attempt is to be made tomorrow (Wednesday) for Stornoway Primary to be allocated money for improvements in this term of the council — a story that I have written about for the Gazette this week.

The full newspaper piece, detailing how a couple of Stornoway councillors are making a last-ditch attempt to secure £1.2million for the school, can be read online here.

I won’t repeat everything from that story here but, to give you a quick summary, the story is that Rae MacKenzie and Gordon Murray will be making a bid for the cash to be spent on improving the infrastructure and facilities, including an upgrade to the gym, the pitch and the changing areas.

Confirming that he would be making a bid for the money, Rae said: “I will propose something. If the people who had supported it the first time, support it this time, there’s a chance that it will go through.” He added, though, that it was “in the lap of the gods”.

When I asked how he had felt about losing out the last time, he said: “I can’t put it in language that you can print. I was just very disappointed, that’s putting it mildly. What was so frustrating was that it was just a matter of one vote. Stornoway Primary didn’t get £1.2million because of one vote.”

The matter will come before full council tomorrow afternoon and I will be one of those Stornoway Primary parents who is keen to see how it goes. If I was at home just now, I would go to the council chamber in person but, as I am away on the mainland, I will have to make do with listening to the audio later on.

It’s good that we have these audio recordings (with playback), actually. I think it’s a really good thing for transparency and accountability.

There will be a lot of Stornoway Primary parents who will want to know what happens tomorrow. And there are four councillors in particular whose positions they will be interested in — the four Stornoway councillors who voted against giving the school money when it came up previously on February 7.

Councillors Angus McCormack (also Education chair), Roddie Mackay (council leader), Neil Mackay and Keith Dodson were among those who voted against the amendment, put forward by Charlie Nicolson, for the primary to get money from an additional £1.2million which the Comhairle had received from Scottish Government.

When parents learned how that vote had gone, they reacted with absolute fury — and some were quite distressed, too. “How can a councillor vote against his own school?” was the common cry.

That decision, taken during a meeting of full council, was lost by 15 votes to 14.

It is worth pointing out to all councillors, here, that there is a lot of public interest in the Stornoway Primary issue and feelings are running high on it.

PARENT

I had written about the issues at Stornoway Primary previously — I suppose I would come into the category of ‘concerned parent’ as I have one child in GM3 and another in the croileagan, due to start school in the summer — and you can read the history of the problem in one of my blog posts from October, ‘A Problem at Stornoway Primary alright (but it’s not the prayers)’.

I won’t repeat all the issues again here but the basic problem is one of capacity, with overcrowding causing a number of problems, including the fact that all the children cannot get their two recommended hours of PE a week in the gym. The assembly hall has to be used but is not designed for the purpose. There is also the problem of the pitch which is waterlogged for much of the year.

It is a fact that these issues have been discussed by Stornoway Primary parents for more than a decade and the matter has graced the desk of at least three directors of Education.

It is also a fact that promises were made to parents when Sandwickhill was closed that their children would be going to a school with better facilities — but nothing has been done to upgrade the offering at Stornoway Primary since that promise was made in 2011.

Who knows what will happen when the council debates this tomorrow. I sincerely hope that the bid for funding will win support. I also hope that all the councillors who are voting will have done their research. It does not help public confidence when you learn, for example, that one councillor who voted against the school said he had not read the papers properly.

It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow and whether the debate takes a similar shape to the last one, or if any councillors change positions.

I have listened to that meeting of February 7 twice. The first time, it was rather upsetting. You could hear the emotion in some of the councillors’ voices as they pleaded for the money.

It’s a wee bit of a back story now but some of the comments that were made were quite interesting, so I have picked out some of the key points for you here.

Basically, the vote was about a motion to approve the budget and an amendment put forward by Charlie Nicolson and seconded by Rae MacKenzie to get money for the school.

It also looked for £1.2million and the proposal was to take it out of the Government allocation. It would have meant taking nearly £200,000 initially out of the additional £1.2million awarded, coupled with £100,000 a year for 20 years from the Education budget.

As we know, the vote was lost but the meeting was highly charged, with Rae pleading with councillors “on behalf of over 600 pupils and their families” to support the amendment.

Others who spoke in support included convener Norman A Macdonald, chairing the meeting, who said: “There is absolutely no doubt that there are issues of capacity at Stornoway Primary School and that has been caused by a number of different things.

CAPACITY

“It has been caused certainly by some of our own interventions as a council in terms of placing requests that have come in. It’s partly to do with the pre-school. But the reality is, there are a lot of pupils in the school and it’s without doubt the biggest primary school in the Hebrides.

“There is an issue with the gym in terms of capacity. They cannot timetable every pupil in the school getting their two hours in the gym over a week. There are activities happening in the dining area / assembly area on either side of the lunch break to allow the physical activity of two hours a week in the school. That does not mean that the gym is adequate.

“Something has to be done in the interim. There are issues there that need to be resolved.”

Making his plea, Charlie Nicolson said he had “sat back a wee bit” over the years while investment was made in other schools throughout the isles — which he had supported.

He also cited the promises made to Sandwick parents in 2011 that “we would look at enhancing and improving the facilities at Stornoway primary”.

He said: “It has not happened, gentlemen. You can see that.” Instead of the facilities at Stornoway Primary going forwards, he said they were “going back the ways”.

Speaking against the amendment, Angus McCormack said the council had gone through a process of setting the budget and should not be “arbitrarily at the last minute” changing its decisions.

He added: “We agreed that if we got additional money from Scottish Government we would put it into a pot so that we would have some set aside to deal with the issues which are undoubtedly going to face us as we go forward.

POACHING

“The additional £1.2million is not a bonus in any way. It merely reduces the deficit situation that we have and we have to bear that in mind and we shouldn’t be poaching money from it.

“Why should one school in this authority receive additional funding from this pot? You need to explain why that should be the case. We should look at all of the schools.”

He also said: “I don’t agree with the criticisms of Stornoway Primary and, to be honest, the general public now has a general view of Stornoway Primary that is entirely false because of statements made in the press and I regret that.”

I dispute that. I believe the general public has a view of Stornoway Primary that is entirely accurate — and they are waiting to see what their elected representatives do about it.

Katie

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