HUMZA Yousaf has been urged not to leave rural families “high and dry” through continued  “SNP neglect” after a Herald report on recent primary school closures.

We revealed last week that 20 primaries in mostly rural areas had been closed and another 20 mothballed by councils in the last five years, with 15 more at risk. 

Eleven of the shuttered schools were in the Highland council area, eight in Argyll & Bute, six in Aberdeenshire and three each in Dumfries & Galloway and Perth & Kinross.

The figures raised concerns about rural depopulation.

At FMQs, Tory Stephen Kerr, a central scotland list MSP, raised the Herald’s coverage with the First Minister/ as he asked about the viability of rural schools.

Mr Yousaf said the Scottish Government had published the first population strategy, with a presumption against the closure of local schools and lengthy consultation processes.

He said: “This process ensures that the impact of any decision is properly considered and options are explored. No school closure decision, of course, is ever and should ever be taken lightly.

Mr Kerr said: “Last weekend, the Herald newspaper revealed that 40 mainly rural schools have been closed or mothballed in recent years.

“Colleagues across all parties in this parliament have described these numbers as alarming.

“[It is] evidence of the blatant disregard that this SNP government has for the rural and remote areas of Scotland. 

“Families with young children in rural Scotland are being left high and dry by the SNP’s neglect, and the SNP government still has no plan for any of this. 

“And now there are 15 more schools at risk of closure, including Blackness school [near Falkirk] in my constituency. 

“So will the First Minister, like his predecessor, turn his back on rural Scotland, or will he take this opportunity to send a strong message of support for our rural schools?”

Mr Yousaf said he did not agree with Mr Kerr’s characterizsartion of the situation, and said school closures were first and foremost a decision for local authorities.

He said: “So let's allow and empower our local authorities to make the decisions, in consultation with their local communities that they believe are right for them.”

He said the SNP had brought in a “whole host of protections” for rural schools, including councils being forced to consider alternatives to closure and demonstrate an educational benefit, the likely impact on pupil travel, and a five year gap between closure proposals.

He said: “Of course what hasn't helped depopulation in remote rural and island communities is a hard Brexit being imposed upon Scotland against our very will.

“That that hard Brexit that has been imposed by Stephen Kerr and his colleagues, of course, has not helped with European migration to Scotland and if only Scotland had the powers to rejoin the European Union perhaps we could reverse depopulation for good.”