Minister accused of acting like school bully

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A SECOND Scottish local authority has agreed to the Scottish Government's request to shelve school closures for a year, amid claims of "bullying" by the education minister.

Shetland Islands Council yesterday postponed a decision on whether to shut Olnafirth Primary until August 2012.

The delay follows a plea to councils by education secretary Michael Russell for a one-year hiatus on any further school closures.

Argyll and Bute earlier this week announced it would delay proposed school closures for a consultation.

However, Mr Russell was last night accused of "bullying" councils into agreeing to his moratorium.

A senior local government source said: "Russell is acting like a school bully on this and bullying councils into backing this delay."

The Shetland reprieve came after a two-hour debate in which councillor Jonathan Wills unsuccessfully put forward a motion to press ahead with the consultation this year as planned.

Dr Wills claimed that to stop the consultation process now, for what he deemed were "purely political reasons", would lead to a five-year delay and kill every opportunity to make savings from school mergers.

The statutory consultation was due to start in August.

Although they agreed to the delay, Shetland councillors were united in criticising government interference and called for Shetland to be represented on the commission to be set up to look at school closures.

Dr Wills said Shetland was not making best use of its funds and not promoting equal access to education.

He said: "The moratorium is solely to save face and he (Mr Russell] wants us to set up a waffle shop to save embarrassment. It's a totally unnecessary delay for purely political reasons.

"There will be a five-year delay and it will kill every opportunity to make savings from mergers.

"This requirement will make the consequences of the financial crisis worse for all schools; in a few years parents will be asking us to merge schools."

Earlier this week the president of umbrella group for council leaders, Cosla, Pat Watters said: "What it does show is the intolerable pressure that can be broughtto bear on a local council when a senior Cabinet secretary chooses to deal with what should always have been a national discussion with reference to his own constituency's local council."

Orkney, Shetland and East Lothian councils have publicly backed the moratorium while Scottish Borders and Angus already have one.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said halting school closure proposals was a win-win scenario for both councils and parents.

She said: "It is entirely right that we stop and look at the issue Scotland-wide.

"Cosla has a key role to play in this and we look forward to an early discussion with them."