Highland village battles to save a school with only one pupil

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY, CARL Hobbs, 13, went to his secondary school alone. When he arrived at 9am, he opened his English and maths textbooks with no one to chatter to about the previous night's homework. The reason? Carl is the only pupil.

This week, he became the central figure in the battle to keep open Tomintoul Secondary, a tiny three-class building in Scotland's highest village, set 1,105 feet up in the Speyside hills in Upper Banffshire.

Moray Council, which claims it costs pounds 105,000 a year to educate Carl, making him more expensive than an Etonian, has announced that the extraordinary Highland school, built in 1902 and long the mainstay of the community, must close. In future, Carl will have to join other children from the village, who are already bussed 25 miles each way to another secondary school in Aberlour, the nearest town.

It sounds like the obvious solution for a boy who must be lonely and for a village of just 350 people.

Yet, Carl and his family are determined to appeal to Donald Dewar, Scotland's First Minister, if the decision is rubber-stamped by a meeting of the full council on Thursday. They say the decision will kill their isolated eastern Highands community, on the western borders of Aberdeenshire, which has attracted a number of families from England because of the good, local secondary education.

With the outdoor centre, which attracted walkers and skiers, recently closed and the library and post office under threat, the loss of the school could lead to the area's terminal decline.

"We came here because we wanted a choice to have our children in a local school, said Gerry Hobbs, 41, Carl's father, who moved with his family from Basildon in Essex eight years ago.

"Carl is fighting for all of us," said another local, Michelle Birnie. "My two boys are aged six and nine and we would like them to go to that school when they are older,"she said. "We have terrible weather here in the winter, getting cut off by the snow and it is too much to expect the children to go that distance every day, leaving home at 7.30am and come home at 6pm, and then do homework."

Ms Birnie runs the shop in a village whose main claim to fame is the so-called "Laird of Tomintoul", Anthony Williams. A former Scotland Yard official and a Robin Hood figure to the village, Williams was jailed in 1995 for embezzling pounds 5m from the Metropolitan Police, pounds 1.8m of which went into lavish refurbishment of Tomintoul's dilapidated Gordon Arms Hotel. Later this year, Liz Hurley and Gabriel Byrne are due to star in one of two films being made of his life. Entitled The Laird and directed by Mel Smith, the film is expected to be good for the economy of the village, which is still jokingly called "Williamsburg" - in the same way as the TV comedy Hamish Macbeth has put the Highland village of Plockton on the map.

At school, Carl continues to do the full range of subjects, although much of the equipment of science and language learning has been transferred to Aberlour. He is taught by teachers living in Tomintoul, who also teach at Aberlour, and receives his PE lessons at the local primary school, which has 44 pupils, 10 of whom are due to move on to secondary level next year. His older brother, Gary, 15, goes every day to Aberlour because Tomintoul, a four-year secondary with almost 30 pupils until two years ago, no longer offers classes to pupils over 14.