UNTIL the Scottish Government imposed a one-year moratorium on the closure of rural schools last June, the sight of angry parents fighting to keep them open was common in Scotland.
Rural primaries, the parents argued, are vital to the survival of villages across the country. Shut the school and there will be an exodus of families and, before long, the death of another small Scottish community.
Today, Cosla, the body that represents the councils that have been seeking to close some rural schools, has cast doubt on this argument. In a submission to the Scottish Government's investigation into rural education, the organisation says that, while it does not question the strong emotional ties between families and their local schools, the vibrancy of a community depends on a range of social and economic factors. The presence of a local school, it says, will have only a limited contribution to make to community life.
Certainly, Cosla is right to suggest the presence of a school is one of only a number of factors that will dictate the health of a community including the presence of shops, employment and transport links. If these other important factors are not in place, a school will not, on its own, be able to maintain the viability and desirability of a village.
However, in saying that a school has only a limited contribution to make to community life, Cosla has gone too far. A good school will not only attract and keep families in a village, it can make a much wider contribution as a driver of social interaction – the school-gates effect. Among the other important factors such as jobs and shops, the school has much more than a limited role to play. What is harder to establish is how important this factor should be in the question of the closure of rural schools. Under recent legislation, the Scottish Government has made it much harder to close a rural school. But this should not mean that a rural school cannot be closed if it is judged to be unfit for purpose.
This should be determined on several grounds, including the educational benefit to pupils of transferring them to a nearby school. In their submission, Cosla rejects the suggestion that a small rural school is necessarily better than a larger, more urban one and there is some truth in this. Although the stated aim of the Government is smaller class sizes, there is a tipping point when classes become too small and are no longer providing the variety, vibrancy and competitiveness of a bigger class. What is less clear is where that tipping point is.
Another factor is financial, although this is not as simple as it might first appear. Once the subsidy that councils receive for rural pupils is taken into account for example – as well as the cost of transporting pupils to another school – closing a rural school can actually cost a council money.
A third key factor is the contribution the school makes to the wider community. There is no question that in some communities, the school can be more than a place of learning – it can a social hub, a reason for living in the community, it is one of the factors that keeps the area vibrant. Cosla may think it is unhealthy to over-state this role but there is just as much danger – for parents and children, for healthy rural communities and for wider Scottish society –in understating it.
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