EDUCATION secretary Michael Russell was facing a bitter attack by campaigning parents last night who claimed he had shown double standards in his dealings with school closures across the country.
• "Mike Russell (pictured) was more than happy to intervene in Argyll" Des McNulty
The Scotsman can reveal that Mr Russell wrote to parents in Edinburgh last year after they had urged him to support their campaign against a local school closure, saying it would be "inappropriate" for him as a minister to get involved. However, it emerged at the weekend that he had personally visited and advised parents over school closures in the Argyll and Bute seat, where Mr Russell is preparing to stand as the local SNP candidate.
The Edinburgh parents last night said his position was "untenable", accusing Mr Russell of "duplicitous" behaviour. Meanwhile, opposition parties said he had been caught "red-handed", offering special treatment to parents in Argyll and Bute as he seeks to win a close constituency contest there in May.
But addressing MSPs last night Mr Russell insisted he had done nothing wrong, saying that, in Argyll and Bute, he had made it clear he was not acting as a minister, but as a local candidate who had been invited to discuss school closures with parents.
Mr Russell said: "I am glad to be known as a defender of rural schools in Argyll and Bute, a defender who has acted with propriety throughout".
The issue is controversial because the ministerial code of conduct stipulates that ministers must keep their duties separate from their constituency interests. Mr Russell has also been accused of breaking the MSPs' code of conduct, which stipulates that MSPs should not get involved in seats they do not represent.
His close involvement with the Argyll and Bute closures came to light last week in a leaked e-mail that showed him pressuring SNP councillors to oppose the closures, warning of disastrous electoral consequences if they went ahead.
The latest twist in the row dates back to December 2009 when parents representing Drumbrae primary school, run by Edinburgh city council, wrote to First Minister Alex Salmond and Mr Russell asking them to intervene to keep the school open. Mr Russell replied, declaring that the Scottish Government "takes no involvement" in decisions made by councils on school closures. The parents passed their correspondence to The Scotsman yesterday.
It emerged at the weekend that Mr Russell had agreed to meet parents at several schools in Argyll and Bute threatened by closure, advising them on the best course of action to take.
Bruce Sherry, chairman of East Craigs Parent Council, which campaigned against Drumbrae's closure last year, said last night: "If Mr Russell's rationale for turning his back on us in late 2009 was a position based on principle or practice then I would be able to at least understand why no assistance or intervention was offered at that time, but I would then assume the consistent application of such a position.
"If the stories in relation to Argyll and Bute are accurate then his duplicity is undoubted, his integrity damaged and his position rendered untenable."
Labour's Education spokesman Des McNulty said: "This is an important intervention by these parents. It makes it clear that Mike Russell was more than happy to intervene in Argyll for his own political ends whilst parents in Edinburgh were told they were on their own."
Extracts from a letter written last year by Michael Russell explaining his reasons for not intervening over an Edinburgh school
I should begin by explaining that the provision of education in Scotland is the responsibility of local authorities and City of Edinburgh Council, like all local authorities, is under a statutory duty to ensure that there is adequate and efficient provision of school education in their area. In that context, Councils may review their school stock and how the location and condition of their schools meet with population patterns and educational needs and the Scottish Government take no involvement in this, except in certain circumstances…
I am aware that City of Edinburgh Council have made the decision to close Drumbrae Primary School … I want to assert from the outset that I would not, at any point, have had locus to intervene in City of Edinburgh Council's consultation or decision…
… it would be inappropriate for Ministers to become involved until and u nless it was referred to us by the authority...
… As distinct corporate bodies, local authorities are responsible for their own actions, acting in accordance with legal requirements. You may, however, wish to contact City of Edinburgh Council who would be able to explain to you the reasoning behind their decision …
FOUR proposed school closures in the Western Isles have been rejected by education secretary Michael Russell.
Using new powers under the Schools Consultation Act, Mr Russell said the council failed to show closure was a last resort.
Carloway Primary on Lewis and Shelibost Primary on Harris will now remain open and S1-S2 provision at Lionel and Shawbost Schools in Lewis will continue.
Mr Russell also called in plans by Shetland to close Scalloway Junior High.
He said: "I believe that there is evidence that the council has undertaken a flawed consultation because it is currently impossible to judge the educational benefits of such a move whilst details of the new Anderson High School remain unconfirmed."
However, consent has been given to Moray Council to proceed with the closure of Cabrach Primary School as the council had adhered to the process set out within the legislation.