EDUCATION Secretary Mike Russell stressed the educational benefit to pupils of shutting a school must remain a “central part of the decision-making process”, as the Scottish Government announced plans to change the law on closures.
The Scottish Government plans to change the existing legislation to clarify the presumption against closure that exists for rural schools. In addition, clear financial information will have to be set out as part of any proposals to shut down a school.
A proposal that councils would no longer need to show there would be an educational benefit to youngsters from shutting a school is not being taken forward.
Fears over closures
A majority of the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education - which was tasked by the Government with considering the issues surrounding rural schooling - had suggested it would be acceptable to close a school if there was “no overall educational detriment” to the children concerned.
Fears were raised that such a change could make it easier for local authorities to close rural schools.
But Mr Russell said: “I am absolutely determined that educational benefit should remain an important part of any proposal - and I am convinced these amendments we will bring forward will ensure this remains central to the decision-making process.”
The changes proposed to the existing legislation will allow ministers to seek further advice or additional information from the body Education Scotland when considering whether or not a decision to close a school should be “called in” by the Government.
Ministers also plan to change the law so that a decision to close a school, once called in by ministers, would be reviewed by an independent referral body.
Another proposed change means that if plans to close a school are refused, or if a council decides not to proceed with them following consultation with the local community, a fresh proposal to shut the school cannot be made for another five years.
But the legislation will “provide scope for exceptions to be made” to this if circumstances change, for example if there was a significant fall in the number of pupils.
The Scottish Government had consulted on the issue after the Commission produced its report earlier this year.
Mr Russell said: “This was a valuable consultation, allowing local authorities, parents, communities and others with an interest in this area to express their views. Responses to the consultation broadly supported the changes to the law proposed by the Scottish Government.
“Our commitment to making these changes to the consultation process for school closures underlines the Government’s belief that education authorities must give extremely careful consideration to a range of matters when bringing forward any closure proposal.”
Liz Smith, the Conservative spokeswoman for young people, said the existing process for school closures was “deeply flawed and not fully transparent” with public trust in it “diminished” as a result.
She said: “The best educational interests of all pupils must be at the forefront of decision-making, as must the sustainability of local communities for whom schools are so often a focal point.
In the existing situation, too many communities have fallen victim to a highly-political process which often sees local authorities and the Scottish Government at loggerheads, and that is unacceptable.
“An independent referral mechanism should help to address this, but that will only be the case if the powers of ministers are both clearly defined and significantly curtailed in comparison to the present system, and if the role of local authorities is given much greater clarity.
“All of Scotland wants to see a system where schools support communities rather than become political footballs.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said: “It is welcome that the Scottish Government intends to ensure that the processes surrounding potential school closures should be transparent and will continue to be based on the potential educational benefits for pupils.
“The EIS believes that the decision to potentially close any school should never be made on purely financial grounds and all decisions must be taken with the best interests of children’s education as the main factor.
“Proposed school closures are often very challenging for communities, for parents, pupils and teachers, so it is important that any such proposals are handled in an appropriate and transparent manner, and with proper consultation with the school community.”