Education / Plenty of desire for a new Brae school, but ‘a lot of hurdles to overcome’

A bid has been submitted to the government for funding towards a new build – but the council would have to finance the construction

A NEW Brae school is justified but may end up being “unaffordable”, a North Mainland councillor has warned.

Tom Morton has regularly spoken up for the idea of a new Brae High School, but councillors were told recently the estimated cost has risen to £40 million.

He maintains his “complete support” for a new Brae school to replace the ageing, “scattered buildings” that make up the current campus.

This is the preferred option, and an outline business case is close to being completed.

But councillors were recently warned that due to the local authority’s finances members will need to prioritise which capital investments it wants to take forward in the future.

The primary school building at Brae was built in the 70s and the secondary building followed in the early 1980s. It initially offered learning up to secondary four but in 1993 it expanded to fifth and sixth year, and it is Shetland’s only school covering nursery to S6.


It is a vital component of life in the North Mainland, but it has been described as no longer fit for purpose.

The SIC has now submitted a funding bid to the Scottish Government for a possible new school, and it is able to use the already approved strategic outline case as part of its submission.

Current estimates have put a new build at around £40 million, which is more than double some initial predictions.

But the funding picture is somewhat complex: no capital finance is available through the government scheme, and instead the council would receive revenue funding over 25 years.

This revenue funding would effectively have to go towards running costs of the school – not repaying borrowing costs – to free up money elsewhere in the budget, and the maximum bid is for 50 per cent of the total construction cost.

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This would mean the council would need to finance the upfront building costs of a new school, likely to be through borrowing, or perhaps using reserves.

There is also a prudential code at play which determines how much the council can borrow to be deemed “prudent, affordable and sustainable”. 

Morton said that under this code, the council’s ability to borrow for capital projects is “severely limited”.

“That would affect not just a new Brae School, but other capital projects too, such as the Fair Isle ferry, other replacement ferries, possible new primary schools and the much-vaunted fixed links,” he added.

Despite the move to bid for government funding Morton said the SIC is facing “financial turmoil, and a predicted cost for a new school of at least £40m, not to mention the difficulties in actually obtaining materials and a contractor willing and able to do the work”.


“And then there are the running costs, as well as staffing,” he continued.

“To my mind, a new Brae school, even one as costly as this, can be justified. But is it financially feasible?

“Priorities will have to be set in the council’s capital programme, and the brutal fact is that when it comes to the crunch a completely new school may be unaffordable. We’ll have to wait and see. And hope.”

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

Meanwhile council leader Emma Macdonald, who also represents Shetland North, highlighted the challenges around the ability to borrow money.

But she hoped that some of the financial volatility may pass soon. 

“The learning estate strategy is really important to ensure that we have a sustainable future for our school estate, and it isn’t just looking at large capital builds – it is about ensuring all of our schools are fit for the future and provide the best learning environment they can,” she said.


“Both of my children attended the Brae school not that long ago, so I am very aware of how important that particular school is, not just for Brae but for the wider area.

“As we know we are facing significant financial pressures at the moment and our ability to borrow is becoming increasingly challenging.

“We are submitting a bid for funding and a decision will be made once we know fully what we are dealing with.

“We all want to see our school estate fit for purpose but in the current environment we need to ensure we are spending our money on the right things at the right time.

“In my view some of the current volatility we are seeing financially will hopefully pass soon and then we are in a better place to make such large investment decisions.”


The final Shetland North member is convener Andrea Manson, and she “doesn’t see how it could not be justified”.

She said since it was constructed the current school now needs more additional access for pupils requiring extra support.

“There’s also cracks in the walls, there’s pieces where it leaks, and so it’s coming to end of its life,” Manson added.

“It’s going to cost more and more and more on an ongoing basis each year to keep it wind and watertight.”

The councillor also said it would save on heating costs and would likely be eco-friendly.

Meanwhile chairman of the education and families committee Davie Sandison, who represents Shetland Central, said he strongly supports pursuing the new school – and he is “sure a financial package can be achieved”.


He said he was content that the SIC is now clearer on the potential costs around a new school.

Sandison said he visited Brae School earlier this month along with committee vice-chair Catherine Hughson, and “saw first hand the elements that build the case for a single footprint, with associated community hub opportunities built in”.

Davie Sandson. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“It’s easy to see why it’s the priority for our very good Learning Estate Strategy,” he continued.

“To be clear however, the SIC would still need to have all the funds to build this – and then get 50 plus per cent back over 25 years.

“So this involves finding a funding mechanism that fits the strictures of our capital programme.

“It’s by no means clear how to get there and we need to first get the finance commitment from Scottish Government and then get a full business case approved by the SIC and them.

“A lot of hurdles to overcome, and meantime Brae School needs continued investment and maintenance.”

The council’s learning estate manager Shona Thompson said the SIC should know by the end of the calendar year if the funding bid has been successful.

The funding set-up would be different to that of the new Anderson High School, for instance, and a number of conditions would have to be met over the years, such as the up-keep and energy efficiency of the building.

If the Scottish Government comes back with an offer of funding it is then up to Shetland councillors to decide how to progress.

No decisions have been made yet over any possible site for a new build, or any designs.

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