Schools threatened with closure across Scotland could win reprieves after the release of powerful new guidance from the Scottish Government.

Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop yesterday sent a letter to all local authorities in Scotland highlighting the importance of preserving quality education in schools, rather than moving to closure to save money, or because of short-term population fluctuations.

The importance of assessing the wider impact of school closures on the viablility and regeneration of the local community has also been stressed. Her position has already been demonstrated in decisions to save schools with tiny rolls in Dumfries and Galloway and Perthshire.

Ms Hyslop's new guidance has been issued as an interim measure in advance of planned legislation to introduce a statutory presumption against closure of rural schools. However, it will also have implications for urban councils.

The need for widespread rationalisation follows a dramatic drop in Scotland's population, which has resulted in the number of pupils falling by 50,000 over the past decade. The situation has been more acute in rural areas, with nearly 60 primaries either shut or threatened with closure in Midlothian, the Borders, Fife, Angus, Aberdeenshire, and Moray since 2003. Junior secondaries in the Western Isles are also now under threat.

A total of 28 primary schools across Glasgow have closed and, more recently, there were proposals in Edinburgh to close 22 schools and nurseries, now overturned after a campaign by parents.

Campaigners have been concerned that decisions were often taken to save money and there was no effective consultation with communities. They have also been concerned existing guidance on closures, drawn up under the former Labour-LibDem executive, was not robust enough.

In her letter to councils, Ms Hyslop re-emphasises the "critical importance" of a local authority's duty to secure improvement in the quality of education.

"For that reason, in future cases I shall be asking for HM Inspectorate of Education's independent and professional advice on the envisaged educational advantages the proposal is intended to secure."

Sandy Longmuir, a spokesman for the Rural Schools Network, set up to fight school closures, welcomed the new stance. "The reality was the previous guidance left enough scope for local authorities to be able to pick and choose which parts they focused on. You cannot underestimate the importance of a school to the life of small rural communities."

Isabel Hutton, education spokeswoman for Cosla, which represents local authorities, said: "Councils do not shut schools for the sake of it. It is part of a wider overall strategy of managing the school estate."

The first school which has benefited from the more robust attitude is one of the smallest and most remote primaries in Scotland. Glentrool Primary in Dumfries and Galloway was scheduled for closure after projections suggested its roll would drop to just four. The council said the educational experience of such a small number of pupils would be unsatisfactory. But the closest alternative primary was more than five miles away, and Ms Hyslop decided that the council had not properly considered the impact on the community.

The other school to benefit was Lochearnhead Primary in Perthshire, which has a roll of eight pupils. Closure would have led to pupils having to be bused to Strathyre Primary, near Callander. Again Ms Hyslop ruled not enough consideration had been taken of the wider impact.