THE neglect of a special school catering for some of the most vulnerable pupils in Ross-shire was this week branded "nothing short of a disgrace" by campaigners determined to ensure the cash-strapped council puts it right at the top of its priority list.
With the local authority planning to halve its capital spend over the next 10 years in a budget due to be set within weeks, parents of children taught in "horrifying" conditions have demanded the "blatant discrimination" must stop.
And in a glimmer of hope for St Clement’s School in Dingwall, the Ross-shire councillor at the heart of Highland Council’s budget-setting process pledged to do everything in his power to ensure children with special needs get the school they deserve, while another admitted top brass feel "shame and distress" over the situation.
St Clement’s in the town’s Tulloch Street caters for children with complex support needs aged from three to 18 from across the county and well beyond. Pupils attend from as far afield as Ullapool, Alness, the Black Isle and Inverness.
Concerns about sub-standard buildings and inadequate facilities have mounted in recent years with the heating system branded "archaic". Some windows don’t open, insulation is poor and children are forced to move between three separate structures in all weathers. Parents also dislike "a maze of narrow locked doors and corridors that leave no opportunity to increase independence, restrict the children’s movements and leave those in wheelchairs without easy access."
Classrooms are described by campaigners as "cold, small, drafty and poorly lit". The school lacks an assembly hall, gym, music or science facilities and does not have a dedicated janitor or school nurse.
Parent council member Joanna Dymock said: "The lack of provision as regards school facilities is nothing short of blatant discrimination against our kids. Equality of access for people with disabilities is now a basic tenet of our society yet the school building does not even allow safe access to its own limited facilities whilst there is no on-site provision at all for PE or life skills development – both essential to our children’s education."
Another Parent council member, Christyna Ferguson, said: "I’m sure the community will be disgusted when they realize the horrifying conditions and discrimination our special needs children have been subjected to for so long and outraged that the Highland Council is setting a societal president as to how special needs children should be treated which is not a true reflection of the values of the Highland people. This has to stop!!"
Another parent who asked not to be named said: "The state of disrepair is shocking and substandard. Why should the most vulnerable in our society have to be educated in an environment which affects them reaching their potential?
"There has been an outcry in the Highlands and rightly so over proposed additional support needs education cuts but year after year StClement’s gets forgotten. We are deeply concerned that if we do not highlight the situation to the community and ask for their support St Clement’s and its children will continue to fall under the radar and be subject to further neglect."
Parents stressed that dedicated staff do the best they can in challenging circumstances to minimize the impact on children but that the poor state of repair and inadequate facilities are "detrimental" to their children.
Dingwall and Seaforth ward coucillor Graham Mackenzie, who is also the former rector of Dingwall Academy, told the North Star: "I met with St Clement’s Parent Council this week at their request. I assured them of my total support in their attempts to achieve a new build for their school.
"The chief executive has visited the school twice in the last two years and expressed his shame and distress that pupils had to be taught in conditions such as these. We only have three special schools in Highland and Highland Council has rightly made sure that facilities in Tain and Inverness have been upgraded to a high level. It is now way beyond time for a similar project in Dingwall to enhance the accommodation for pupils some of whom travel some distance to be educated here. I look forward to this being very high on the priorities list for the new capital plan."
The council’s budget leader Alister Mackinnon is also a Dingwall and Seaforth ward councillor.
He said: "As budget leader it’s my recommendation that St Clement’s goes into the capital plan in the first few years. I know that all members in Dingwall and Seaforth and beyond are fully aware of the urgent need there. We are looking at every option to deliver that. It’s a very humbling experience going there. It’s probably one of the worst school buildings in the Highland Council area. Staff do a great job and the building does not complement that."
He added: "The challenge is to work with elected officials to look for a new site."