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Don’t interfere in school closures, Russell is told

SCOTTISH Government ministers have been accused of interfering in school closure decisions taken by councils.

Private correspondence seen by The Herald highlights growing frustration at the number of times Michael Russell, the Education Secretary, has intervened in local authority decisions.

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The Convention of Scottish Local authorities (Cosla), the body which represents council leaders, has now written to Mr Russell accusing him of failing to act in a “consistent, pragmatic and limited way”.

In a separate communication to Government officials, the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (Ades) also warned a higher level of intervention was taking place than originally envisaged under the law.

School closures -- in both cities and rural areas -- have been one of the most contentious issues local government has had to face in recent years. Many councils facing tighter budgets have brought forward closure plans for small schools which have declining pupil numbers and which are expensive to run.

However, parents have felt some decisions are damaging to their children’s education and -- in the case of rural schools -- impact on the future sustainability of their communities.

As a result, the SNP brought in new legislation to protect rural schools. Under the 2010 Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act, parents were given the right to appeal to ministers for a review of closure decisions by local authorities.

At the time, councils saw the review mechanism as something that would only be used in very exceptional circumstances where a consultation process had been flawed. However, since July, there have been 15 call-ins out of some 30 closure proposals, with some of the most controversial taking place in Glasgow. Of these, four have been rejected, although not all have reached a conclusion.

Mr Russell was attacked in July for failing to review a decision by East Ayrshire to close Crossroads Primary, near Kilmarnock.

The Government decided the council had fulfilled its obligations under the legislation, but the Scottish Rural Schools Network said the decision gave the “green light” to councils to close primary schools. Mr Russell has since been responsible for a string of call-ins which councils now feel is inappropriate.

In August, Glasgow City Council hotly contested moves by the Government to review the closure of three schools.

Mr Russell said he had acted after education inspectors voiced concerns about the planned closure of three schools in the city. In a letter last month to Mr Russell, Isabel Hutton, education spokeswoman for Cosla, who is an SNP councillor, described growing levels of “mistrust and frustration” over how the Act was being interpreted by Government.

“For some of our members there is a view the call-in power is not being used in a consistent, pragmatic and limited way,” she said.

The Ades document states: “Assurances were given by senior civil servants that call-in would be applied in exceptional cases where there was a clear breach of procedures. Experience of the last year suggests that this is not the case and that a higher level of intervention is taking place.”

Both Cosla and Ades also raise concerns over previous plans by Mr Russell to publish new guidance on how the law should be interpreted before the Scottish Parliament elections.

Mr Russell told the SNP party conference in October fresh guidance would ensure all alternatives to closure were examined. However, he subsequently agreed to delay publication of the guidance until after the election.

Ades suggests the draft guidance gave the impression rural schools were a “no-go area in terms of closure” and called for more funding if minsters want rural schools to thrive.

“If guidance is too detailed … then it does seem like micro-management of the education service by Scottish ministers and undermines local ownership of such decisions,” it states. “Such guidance could lead to continual rather than exceptional intervention by Scottish ministers -- this is not what was intended and it is not appropriate.”

Last night, Sandy Longmuir, a spokesman for the Scottish Rural Schools Network, said ministerial call-in was a vital part of the process. “There was unanimous agreement in the Scottish Parliament that the call-in procedure should be put in place and that it should be used,” he said.

A spokesman for Mr Russell said: “The new law exists to protect pupils and parents from unnecessary and ill-thought out school closures. If councils don’t follow it, then it is the duty of the Education Secretary to intervene.”

Leader comment: Page 14

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