Bid to curb rural school closures


Steve Bargeton
Courier, 2.5.08

Ministers have unveiled new Plans to make it more difficult for councils to close rural schools. A new consultation document issued yesterday would effectively enshrine in law a presumption against closing rural schools.

There are about 1000 schools in rural communities across Scotland, 41% of them primaries and 23% secondaries. Between 1998 and 2006, 71 rural schools closed in Scotland, an average of eight per year.

The average number of pupils in remote rural schools is 53 in primary and 202 in secondary.

Current school closures legislation dates back to 1981, but Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop yesterday said changes were needed to make closures fairer and more transparent.

Under the proposals, councils would by law have to consider the alternatives to closure and examine the impact closure would have on the community, pupils’ travel patterns and the local area and environment.

Councils could have to publish a consultation paper, including a statement outlining the educational benefits of such a move, consult on any closure plans for at least six weeks during term-time and also seek the views of school inspectors.

Also, they must hold a public meeting on their proposals and publish a report giving the results of the consultation and their response to these.

It is important that rural schools get the protection they need and this government wants their future safeguarded,” said Ms Hyslop.

There can be much heartache and time-consuming efforts in current consultations and we want to try and relieve that.

This government wants to make the process for handling all school closures fairer, more robust and more transparent and to see better consultation before any decision is taken.”

But think tank Reform Scotland said the best way to protect schools was to give more power to parents.

Examples from overseas show that devolving greater power to parents and communities to run and set up new schools would, potentially, lead to more rural schools being opened rather than being closed,” it said.

Such an increase in choice and diversity would also help raise standards for everyone.

In many other countries, such as Sweden and Holland, parents play a powerful role in education—if they are dissatisfied with the school their child attends they can send them to another. Or they can group together with other parents and/or providers and set up their own schools.

In the Netherlands a group of only 50 parents in rural areas are needed to set up a school on their own.

Such policies have led to an increase in small autonomous schools receiving state funding, not just in urban areas, but in rural communities as well.”

According to Reform Scotland, in Sweden the number of autonomous schools in rural areas increased from four in 1993 to 20 in 2004, creating far more choice for parents in rural areas.

The Scottish Government’s consultation runs until September 19.

Ms Hyslop urged pupils, parents, teachers and “everyone with an interest in schools” to take part.

Scottish Tory education spokesman Murdo Fraser, who is sponsoring his own Rural Schools (Scotland) Bill, welcomed the consultation.

Too many rural schools have been closed in Scotland in recent years and I believe we must change the law to safeguard those which remain,” Mr Fraser said.

Closing rural schools is not just an education issue. It affects the health of a rural community—and when schools have closed, we have seen a wider decline in a rural area, as young families are reluctant to settle there.

School buildings are often the hub of community activities, extending well beyond formal education.

I look forward to working with the SNP government to see legislation enacted to increase protection for rural schools.” 
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