STRONTIAN PRIMARY – SCOTLAND’S FIRST COMMUNITY SCHOOL
At the heart of every thriving community is a primary school; with it come families whose working age members drive the local economy and provide care for the youngest and oldest within it.
So when our village school in Strontian was considered inadequate not just by local parents and the teaching staff but by Highland Council themselves, who ran it, we knew we had a problem. Worse still was the realisation that Council proposals to address the issue were shaped by projections suggesting that the school roll would reduce sharply in coming years – hence their preferred temporary solution being to install modular units.
We, as parents, flatly rejected this. Beyond the immediate school community, there was also wider concern at this apparent downward spiral: we knew a poor short term school fix and the lack of local affordable housing would lead to fewer families with children, and a real risk to the viability of this community in the future.
Two factors combined to point to a way forward. Firstly, our community had already taken on – and completed – challenging projects, notably an £850,000 community hydro scheme. Secondly, we had an established relationship with the Highlands Small Communities Housing Trust (HSCHT), who had worked with us on local masterplanning, and had delivered a much-needed affordable housing project in the village.
Working with HSCHT, we came up with our own proposal to the school issue: what if we – the community – were to build a school, and lease it to the Council? The specifics might be novel, but the principle was well established, through models such as Private Finance Initiative or Public Private Partnership: indeed the Council-run Ardnamurchan High School in the village had been built via PPP, though this would revert to Council ownership in 2027, a fact that proved to be significant.
Once wider community support had been established for this proposal, to their credit Highland Council agreed. There was a catch, however: with the High School becoming available to them in 10 years’ time, and feeling this could provide alternative accommodation for the primary school in due course, they were unwilling to enter a long term lease. We would need to plan our project with an exit strategy……
We set up a Community Benefit Society (CBS) – Strontian Community School Building Ltd (SCSB) – to act as the vehicle for the project and recruited a board of volunteer directors. But how to raise the near £1 million pounds needed for a project like this?
First to commit was Triodos Bank. We met their relationship manager in the village and he simply said: ‘we love your project’, shortly afterwards offering loan finance of 60% of project costs. With a Council payment for ‘tenants works’ – ultimately approved after much nerve-jangling to-ing and fro-ing, we began to chip away at the remaining 40%. We applied to the Scottish Land Fund for land purchase costs – the first CBS to successfully do so. That still left a six figure sum to find….
Fortunately, we were familiar with community shares, having used them to fund our hydro scheme, and had chosen to incorporate as a CBS with this in mind. With the help of Community Shares Scotland and their consultants, we launched a community share offer in December 2016 seeking to raise at least £100k. By the time the offer closed 3 months later we had reached and exceeded our target, selling over £155k of shares to both locals and others.
The finance package was completed through a grant from Foundation Scotland, and local funding. As well as £10k in local donations and fundraising – from kids selling cakes at their gates to gifts from local residents & businesses – our own community benefit fund, set up to disburse profit from our hydro scheme, provided £24k.
In parallel to all this necessary project ‘bureaucracy’, SCSB had appointed HSCHT as project managers and development agents, and they had meanwhile tendered the construction on a design and build basis. Our design brief included all the elements we needed for a high quality school – plus a requirement to design for possible conversion to another use (our ‘exit strategy’).
When tenders were opened there was one clear winner on both cost and quality grounds: local building contractor S & K MacDonald Homes with a design from Fort William based Kearney Donald Partnership. And what a design: a stunning layout based on the footprint of four housing units.
Work began on site in October 2017 with a turf-cutting ceremony involving local school children and their parents. Indeed, as members of the community themselves Kenneth and Susan MacDonald, who together run S & K MacDonald Homes, made sure that that connection was maintained throughout. So when, almost exactly a year later, pupils marched ceremonially from the old school to the new, led by a local piper, there were no surprises in store for the children.
The end result far exceeds our expectations. It has more space and facilities than the old school, and is of much higher quality. Its location gets far more light, and its grounds are a blank canvas waiting for the children to fill with plants for amenity, food and wildlife. Crucially, its position next to the nursery and High School means far better integration and interchange for the wee ones, with older brothers and sisters close by and access to high quality library and PE facilities.
Supporting StatementSunart Community Council nominated this project because:
”the brand new school has transformed the educational experience for our primary pupils, brought the community together to fundraise, demonstrated an innovative approach that is having spin off with other projects – it’s amazing”
SCSB Ltd was likewise happy to nominate its project and submit an entry, following the community council nomination, as it has pioneered a new model of delivery of infrastructure; though it was hugely challenging for us, it could be a way forward for other communities in the future, learning from our experience, as it is transferable to a variety of other contexts. This 'community finance initiative' approach avoids many of the issues of the better known - and more controversial - private finance initiative, not least in terms of value for money: indeed we recently won the category 'Innovation in Delivering Value' at the Education Buildings Scotland Awards. Community ownership ensures any profits - if they are ultimately generated - will be reinvested in community development, and provides a legacy following the end of the lease with Highland Council, whenever that comes. Designing for conversion to another use as we have offers flexibility and maximises the range of situations where this model could be used.