Education Secretary Mike Russell has announced a year’s moratorium on the closure of rural schools across Scotland.
He wrote to Scottish local authorities yesterday asking them not to bring forward new proposals to close any rural school and to halt all work on the already planned closures.
The move comes after fears that more than 900 schools classed as rural in Scotland would be ripe targets for closure by local authorities.
Instead, the Scottish Government is to set up a Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education. The Commission will also review the the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010.
Brought in by the SNP minority Government in the last session, the Act made it clear that there should be a presumption against the closure of rural schools and the need for educational benefits should be the driving force in any proposed closure.
Mike Russell said this morning: “The delivery of education in rural communities is about much more than a school building, it is fundamental to the social and economic make-up of a community. That is why it is the right of individual communities to have genuine consultation based on accurate information and why there is, and will remain, a clear legislative presumption against closure.
“However, since the Schools Consultation Act came into force there have been differences in the interpretation of the Act. I believe that these differences have resulted in the original intentions of the Act – that the educational, not financial, benefits should be the main consideration – not always being followed.
“To allow for a comprehensive and fair assessment of the closures process, I have asked for a one year moratorium during which local authorities will not propose rural schools for closure.
“During this period a new Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education will be tasked with, amongst other things, reviewing the legislation and its application and making recommendations on best practice on the delivery of education in rural areas. It will also look at innovation and the link between rural education and rural regeneration.
“I will announce more details on its remit and membership shortly, but it will have licence to think radically and will return at the start of the next year with fresh proposals.”
Some 16 per cent of Scottish school pupils are educated in the 918 schools in Scotland officially classed as rural’. Between 1998 and 2006, some 71 rural schools closed.
Causing some controversy, Mr Russell himself intervened in the plan to close 11 rural schools in and around his own Argyll constituency.
COSLA President Pat Watters told the BBC: “There is a difference between being consulted and being told. This is a subject that has never been raised at any of our political meetings – the way it has been done does not add up.
“Does anybody honestly think that any council leader or education convener takes a decision to close a single school, rural or otherwise, without a tremendous amount of thought?
“Yes, we are driven by factors like finance and balancing budgets, but our main motivation is councils need to support educational attainment for all our young people across their area.
“Councils have always had to make this difficult call and we fully understand that it can cause tensions.”
He added: “If there is a way in which we can marry the financial issues facing us, the need to balance all the educational issues across a council area and a satisfactory outcome for pupils, parents, central and local government then that should be embraced and it would certainly be something that I would be willing to put to my colleagues in local government.
“The subject of school closures is a serious problem that can only be solved in partnership.”