It is an immutable fact of local government that every school closure generates passionate opposition.
In these times of unprecedented pressure on local authority spending, the closure of some small schools will be placed, however reluctantly, on the agenda by councillors determined to get the most out of an education budget which cannot justify maintaining ageing buildings and paying teachers’ salaries for a dwindling roll of pupils.
The Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act, which came into effect last year, was a significant step forward in enabling parents to appeal to the Education Secretary for review if they thought the consultation process had not been fully followed before a school was closed. Councillors and directors of education, however, expected call-ins to be very much the exception rather than the rule.
That 12 closure decisions have been called in by Michael Russell in less than 12 months would appear to indicate the opposite. As a result he has agreed to issue new guidance on the regulations but this has led to concerns on the part of the Association of Directors of Education Scotland (Ades) that over-detailed guidelines could amount to micro-management of the education service by Scottish ministers. This raises significant questions about the autonomy and responsibility of councillors, and the danger of over-prescription from Holyrood undermining the power of local authorities to make decisions in accordance with local needs and circumstances must be recognised.
Mr Russell has demonstrated his personal commitment to the SNP’s policy of a presumption in favour of keeping rural schools open by campaigning, not without controversy, against school closures in the Argyll and Bute constituency where he is an election candidate. This adds to the risk that the high number of proposed closures he has called in as Education Secretary will be construed as politically motivated, irrespective of the details of each case. In fact the minister has been even-handed, deciding not to call in the school at the centre of one of the most high-profile campaigns, Crossroads Primary in East Ayrshire, while turning the focus on urban communities by calling in plans to close three schools in Glasgow.
Nevertheless, more closures of some of the 600 schools in Scotland with fewer than 70 pupils, in both urban and rural areas, are inevitable as councils face tighter budgets. The equally unpalatable alternative for local authorities will be to reduce the number of teachers or change terms and conditions of service for all teachers.
It was expected by campaigners and education officials that the legislation on consultation would provide for call-ins to be decided by an official outwith the political process. That should now be reconsidered. This is clearly no time to set up a new quango but given the contentious nature of school closures, a demonstrable objectivity is required. The new guidelines ought to make the process clearer and lessen the need for reviews. Once reduced in number, could they be removed from the political fray by becoming the responsibility of the ombudsman?
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