THERE is a very fine balance to be struck when deciding whether a rural school should be closed.
So it is hardly surprising that the Scottish Government-backed commission on the future of these schools has found itself confronting the same issues that for decades have put local authorities attempting to rationalise and modernise educational provision at loggerheads with parents who are convinced of the educational and social value of their local school.
In recent years, following an SNP manifesto commitment in 2007, there has been a "presumption against closure" of rural schools. It was in response to anger over closure consultations that were seen as shams. In 2010, this was bolstered by legislation that obliged councils to carry out an impact assessment on the local community and, crucially, required them to show that the pupils' education would be enhanced by moving them to another school.
That may be about to change. As The Herald reports today, the commission is recommending that educational benefit statements concluding that the educational impact is neutral should suffice.
It is not hard to see where the pressure is coming from. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla) argues that the 2010 act, along with the Scottish Government's power to call in proposals, has set the bar too high for closures. They contend that their responsibility is to consider the educational experience of all the children in their area.
This is not just about saving money. In fact, because of the loss of special payments and the cost of transporting children to another school, a closure may cost the council money, at least in the short term, though the argument is complicated by issues such as teacher numbers and dilapidated school buildings which can skew the equation.
Ministers should think hard before accepting the commission's recommendation. This is not an argument about tiny schools with few pupils and ageing buildings. In most cases, those need to go. It is about rural schools that are scheduled for closure despite healthy rolls, well-maintained premises and outstanding inspection reports. These are the contentious cases. Parents fear the focus on the quality of education will be diluted. They see the commission's recommendation as neutering the educational rationale that is meant to underpin closure decisions. Instead they claim educational benefit statements should be strengthened as an element in such decisions.
Generally speaking, educational legislation in Scotland has been used as a tool to raise standards. Perhaps it is too tempting during a period of exceptionally tight budgets for councils to seek to change the rules in their search for economies. But rolls can rise as well as fall and, just as a puppy is not just for Christmas but forever, so is a school closure. It is right that, before a school that may have stood in a community for centuries is padlocked forever, those making the decision should focus on the consequences for not only today's pupils and their community but for future generations too.
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