Education: Highland skirmish - Liz Heron reports on the controversy surrounding Scotland's first opted-out school

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Scotland's first opted-out school officially comes into existence tomorrow. It should be a cause for celebration at the Scottish Office, which has been seeking a flagship school for its policy of promoting self-governing status in Scotland for several years, but it is likely to be met with an embarrassed silence.

The school is Dornoch Academy, a two-year secondary school with 80 pupils and 120 spare places on the east coast of Sutherland, and the opt-out process, triggered by its parents, has been dogged by complications and acrimony.

The Scottish Office has had to bring in a solicitor to resolve a dispute over a janitor's house and playing fields shared with the adjoining primary school. And a free school bus service will take children from Dornoch to Golspie High School, 10 miles to the north, and Tain Royal Academy, across the new Dornoch Firth bridge to the south, after Highland Regional Council decided last month that it had a legal duty to enable all pupils in the region to attend a local authority school should they wish. More than a third of primary pupils due to transfer to Dornoch Academy in August from its two feeder schools have already opted to go instead to Golspie or Tain.

Yet the Dornoch school board's first move will be to apply to Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, for permission to enter consultations on expanding the school for 11- and 12-year-olds into a six- year secondary school. The board has been aiming to use opting out to upgrade the school since the regional council refused to upgrade it last year, and the issue has bitterly divided the communities along Sutherland's east coast.

Since the pupil roll in the county is virtually static, extra forms for 13- to 18-year-olds at Dornoch could be filled only by reducing the number of pupils at Golspie and Tain. Both schools are already under capacity and fear they will have to cut subjects if they lose pupils.

The Rev James Simpson, minister of Dornoch Cathedral and moderator-designate of the Church of Scotland's general assembly, wrote in the Northern Times late last year: 'During my 17 years as chaplain to the Academy, I cannot recall friendships between parents ever being so strained or the Dornoch teachers being so divided.'

The latest dispute - over the timetable for upgrading the Academy - has embarrassed the Scottish Office into lodging a copy of a letter it sent to the school board in the House of Commons library. This followed a parliamentary question by Robert Maclennan, Liberal Democrat MP for Sutherland, who called for all correspondence between the Scottish Office and the Academy to be made public.

'The school board has issued statements suggesting they have been advised by the Scottish Office that the school will be upgraded very, very quickly,' he says. 'But there are statutory provisions requiring consultation that take time, and I don't think the outcome can be pre-empted.'

The Scottish Office letter told the board to inform parents that Mr Lang disagreed with the board's recent newsletter, which set a provisional timetable for upgrading by 1 September. It said a final decision on upgrading did not seem possible before next January, and complained that the newsletter could give the false impression that Mr Lang had already made up his mind to upgrade the Academy.

Unrepentant, the board told parents this week that its legal advisers say the school could be upgraded by September, enabling current pupils to stay on for a third year.

Battle lines are now drawn, and the Academy's campaign to win more primary-school pupils will be launched at the opening ceremony on 11 April with a new brochure and an open day. John Garvie, Dornoch's headteacher, says the school will introduce its own bus service to bring pupils from Tain and Golspie. 'Highland Region has tried to take away our first-year intake, so we are planning to bus in pupils from wherever we can get them.'

Meanwhile the Sutherland Parents' Action Group, centred in Golspie, is considering legal action against the Scottish Office if it upgrades the Academy, on the grounds that surplus places would be created, increasing the cost to community charge payers. However, if Mr Lang does not approve the upgrade, there is a serious risk his first opted-out school will close as parents flee the uncertainty and discord.

(Photograph omitted)