SCHOOLS in rural areas, more so than in urban centres, are a focus for whole communities and decisions affecting them arouse deep passions.

So who is best placed to make the ultimate ruling about the future of such a school: democratically elected councillors and local officials, ministers susceptible to voter pressure or disinterested independent arbitrators from offices in another part of the country?

That is a vexed question that can be cogently argued in different ways but in a parliamentary statement yesterday, Education Secretary Michael Russell nailed his colours to the mast, indicating that he was minded to keep the so-called "call-in process" whereby ministers review unpopular decisions by councils, in some form, and to make it arms-length from Government.

Loading article content

He has good reason for favouring such an approach. He himself has been accused of political bias, after legally challenging a decision by Western Isles Council to close one school and shut S1 and S2 classes at another, a fight motivated, according to Scottish Labour, by the desire to shore up the re-election prospects of local SNP MSP Alasdair Allan in the run-up to the last Holyrood election (the Minister's challenge was ultimately thrown out by the Court of Session). Apart from damaging relations between central and local government, such incidents have other consequences. Perception being almost as important as reality in politics, it is clearly not in the Scottish Government's interests to be mistrusted in this way, but nor is it in the interests of families and rural schools campaigners. They have long lacked confidence in the way decisions about rural schools are made. The Minister's intention to maintain a high-level appeals process but make it politically independent is therefore welcome.

Parents, children and rural schools campaigners can also take heart from Mr Russell's firm declaration in favour of requiring local authorities to show that there is an educational benefit to closing a school and moving pupils elsewhere, rather than settling for the alternative formulation as recommended by the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education, that such closures should have a "neutral impact" on education. That shores up the importance of quality of education in the face of countervailing financial pressures to close schools.

What all this means, however, is that the disputes that have long swirled around this issue are set to continue unabated. Councillors and local officials are piqued at the way in which their authority to rationalise the use of resources in their areas has been undermined by the call-in process; Cosla would like to see it scrapped altogether. Local authorities are in the unenviable situation of having to try to maintain standards in all their services with shrinking budgets; nevertheless, their position of arguing for educational benefit to be removed, will not help allay suspicions among parents that left unfettered, councils would seek to close more high-performing schools due to short-term financial concerns.

A stand-alone appeals procedure and the reassertion of the importance of maintaining educational excellence, will not prevent further disputes, but it should help boost confidence in the decision-making process.