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INSIDE TRACK: Why school closures remain an intractable issue

Irrespective of the outcome of the independence referendum, council spending will continue to be squeezed.

Education budgets, the largest on the balance sheet, will be subject to even closer scrutiny. Where will councils seek further savings?

Some, especially in rural areas, will look harder at their smaller schools. But many will find themselves between the rock of financial imperative and the hard place of parental opposition and electoral retribution.

The Cabinet Secretary has set out the Scottish Government's position on the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill. Michael Russell said enough to confirm that the future of our small rural schools will remain a tricky thistle to grasp. Much of the debate on the report of the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education has centred on "educational benefits" from small school closures. Let's not beat about the bush: most closure proposals are financially, not educationally, driven, although the two are often inextricably linked.

The concept of educational benefit is multifaceted and virtually impossible to tie down. Campaigners for the retention of rural schools and the commission's report state that that there is "no barrier to rural schools delivering an excellent education". No two schools, rural or not, are the same, so it is a fairly bold assertion.

The Scottish Rural School Network, in its submission to the commission, argued that councils are already recompensed for additional expenditure arising from retention of small schools. Furthermore, it argued that rural councils could be worse off as a result of closures.

I have attended a number of consultation meetings, some fiery, on proposed closures. At one, I was surprised by the turnout for a school with fewer than five pupils. Most of those present were parents from a nearby, larger school arguing strongly for closure. They gave the educational benefits case short shrift, arguing that using scarce resources to preserve the small school was educationally detrimental to their children.

Mr Russell is considering creating an independent body with the final say on disputed closures. Politicians are well aware that school closures do not win votes and would like to distance themselves from the process. Even so, Alex Salmond was quick to spot a campaigning opportunity from an under-the-radar meeting with parents at a closure-threatened Aberdeen school prior to a hotly contested by-election.

The commission's proposal that, where it has been agreed not to close a school, there should be no further closure proposal for five years, is welcome. As the former head of a school regularly earmarked for closure, I can confirm the debilitating effects of uncertainty. Closure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as parents remove their children, often reluctantly, to the security of a school not under threat.

School closures will remain an emotive and intractable issue. Future decisions cannot be based wholly on the elusive concept of educational benefit. The future of small schools is dependent on political, economic, social and, above all, demographic forces. Present and future measures may only delay the inevitable.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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