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Protection for rural schools

THE SCOTTISH government has reiterated its stance on closing rural schools by stating that they would have no hesitation to call in any closure proposals if they feel local communities have not received a fair hearing.

Scottish education secretary Mike Russell said on Thursday that rural schools would be further protected through “fresh mandatory guidance” currently being worked on.

Last year, the Scottish parliament approved legislation which requires local authorities to thoroughly consult with communities before being able to close schools.

If the government thinks local authorities have not done so, it has the power to halt any closure and re-examine the evidence.

Shetland Islands Council has just completed a six week long consultation process on three separate issues, including the proposed closures of the secondary departments of Scalloway and Skerries schools.

The council’s schools service received more than 500 submissions in response to the consultations.

On Thursday, Mr Russell said: “Any school closure can only go ahead if the alternative on offer is educationally better than the existing arrangements.

“However, more still needs to be done, especially for rural schools. One of the chief concerns of many rural communities is that they feel their ideas for viable alternatives to closure are not given a fair hearing. We must address this frustration.

“Where an alternative to closure meets the educational needs of the children, the parents, the teachers and – in these financially difficult times – the council, we will ensure it is fully explored.

“We will work with communities, local authorities and stakeholders on fresh mandatory guidance that makes it clear to councils that they must consider all viable alternatives to closure – regardless of the source.

“They must listen to, examine, test and – when it holds water – accept any plan that a community brings forward to save a rural school.

“If a council fails to do so, I will not hesitate to call those plans in and halt those closures until all practical alternatives have been fully examined.”

It emerged on Thursday that Scottish ministers decided to call in proposals by Highland Council to close five primary schools in the Fort William area because of what they see as flaws in the council’s consultation process.