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Councils bid to axe school closure appeals

COUNCILS have drawn up plans to scrap the legal right of parents to appeal to the Scottish Government when their local school faces closure.

Confidential papers from Cosla, the umbrella body for local authorities, highlight its intention to "remove entirely" the current provision for a call-in of rural school closures.

The papers – a report of a meeting last November of Cosla's executive group – note the body's agreed position on the call-in "should be to remove it entirely within the longer term and not replace it with any other appeals process".

However, the paper goes on to state that, as a short-term measure, Cosla should "consider a framework which would set the ground rules for the call-in process".

Schools campaigners have hit back at the suggestion the call-in process to Scottish Government ministers should be axed.

Sandy Longmuir, chairman of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, said: "Time after time we see examples of councils using questionable methods to support the case for closure. All we have asked for is a transparent appeals process which gives the public affordable access to have complaints heard – and heard before the school closes.

"If councils operate within the law and supply accurate information they have nothing to fear from any transparent appeals process.

"The underlying position of Cosla is that they are against any form of appeal system and are working behind the scenes to achieve that aim.

"They are absolutely intent that the actions of councils should not be subject to any independent scrutiny."

Douglas Chapman, Cosla's education spokesman, said a call-in process, enshrined in the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 would not be necessary if the closure process was improved.

He said: "When the 2010 Act came into force Cosla envisaged it as a safety net but, from a local authority perspective, the call-in process has not worked as effectively as anticipated.

"While there may be a need to retain call-in powers in the short-term, in the longer term the aim to build greater trust between local authorities and communities should lead to a position where call-ins eventually become unnecessary."

Closures – in both cities and rural areas – have been one of the most contentious issues local government has faced in recent years. There are about 900 rural schools in Scotland. Many councils facing tighter budgets have brought forward closure plans for schools that have small pupil numbers.

They argue they are expensive to run, with pupils better served in larger schools.

Many parents, on the other hand, feel such decisions damage their children's education and the future viability of their communities.

The SNP picked up the issue in its 2007 manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections and promised a legal "presumption against closure". After winning power, the SNP passed legislation introducing new safeguards for rural schools which introduced the new right of appeal to ministers.

However, Cosla has argued ministers have used the process too often.

Schools campaigners, however, believe some decisions which should have been overturned were not challenged.

Last year, Cosla caused widespread controversy after arguing for the first time that schools were not important to the survival of rural communities.

In a submission to a Scottish Government-backed commission, Cosla said the "vibrancy" of communities depended on a range of economic and social factors and argued a school "will at best only have a limited contribution to make to community life".

The claim undermines the belief, widely held by parents and campaigners, that schools are at the centre of life in rural areas and should therefore be saved from closure.

CASE STUDY

THE most recent fight to save a rural village school centres on Baldernock Primary in Torrance.

Under proposals from East Dunbartonshire Council the school could be shut and merged with another one.

Parents are already angry that the council has brought forward informal plans to shut the primary at a time when councils had agreed a blanket ban on closures with the Scottish Government.

Although the formal moratorium ended in the summer, it was hoped that it would continue until after the publication of a report by the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education this year.

Jan Mackay, joint chair of Baldernock's parent council, said it was concerning Cosla had a long-term aim of scrapping the right to appeal.

She said: "The school lies at the heart of this community. If it goes, the community will be fractured forever. You will never get that back because people with young families will not move to the area.

"I cannot believe councils would want to have this as an aim. It is in their interest, but if the voice of parents is removed. It needs to be there as a safeguard as the benefits of rural schools are often brushed under the carpet."

The council plans are part of a wider bid to refurbish its primary school estate and tackle falling rolls and ageing buildings. Councillors agreed to an informal public consultation before decisions are made in March on which schools should close or merge. A formal consultation will then take place.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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