Response to the publication of the rural schools consultation

Today (Thursday) the Scottish Government has published ‘Safeguarding our rural schools and improving school consultation procedures: proposals for changes to legislation’ in response to the growing number of rural schools facing closure. The publication follows the SNP’s commitment to introduce legislation that would create a legislative presumption against the closure of rural schools.

Reform Scotland believes that further regulation is not the way to achieve this objective. 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 more being closed. Such an increase in choice and diversity would also help raise standards for everyone.

Background

Between 1998 and 2006, 71 rural schools closed in Scotland. An average of 8 per year. [1]

The average number of pupils in schools in remote rural areas of Scotland is 53.7 in primary and 202.4 in secondary. [2]

Rural schools with few pupils are often under threat of closure as it is seen as more efficient to have children in bigger schools to keep costs down. Such decisions pay little heed to the wishes of parents or to the educational needs of the child. Therefore, parents often have little choice but to send their child to the school the local authority allocates.

The Scottish Government’s consultation proposes a legislative presumption against the closure of rural schools. It proposes new legislation requiring local authorities to consider specific matters prior to reaching a decision to propose and consult on a rural school closure. The issues to be considered are:

  • Alternatives to the closure of the school
  • Likely overall impact of the school’s closure on the communities which it serves
  • The likely impact of closure specifically on the community’s subsequent use of the school’s buildings, facilities and grounds
  • The likely impact that new travel to school patterns and arrangements would have on pupils, other school users and on the environment

The evidence shows that giving parents and local communities more autonomy in running schools would save many rural schools from being closed

In many other countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, parents play a powerful role in education. If they are dissatisfied with the school their child attends they can send them to another. Alternatively, they can group together with other parents and/or independent 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 the number of small autonomous schools receiving state funding, not just in urban areas, but in rural communities as well. In these countries rather than schools closing in rural areas, more schools are actually being established. For example, in Sweden the number of autonomous schools in rural municipalities increased from 4 in 1993 to 20 in 2004 creating far more choice for parents in rural areas. [3]

Such a system is not a guarantee that no school will ever close. Even the Government’s consultation paper accepts that some schools will inevitably close. However, an education system where parents and communities have more control will ensure that no popular school closes against the wishes of parents and local communities.

Passing legislation to prevent rural schools being closed is simply a sticking plaster. The best way to ensure that the educational needs of rural communities are met and to ensure that schools stay open is to give parents the power to choose where they can send their child and make it far easier to set up new schools. Such autonomous schools could be funded by the state, but not run by the state. This would meet the Scottish Government’s aim of a system that “has the trust and confidence of the public”

[1] Fraser. M, “Consultation Document on the Rural Schools (Scotland) Bill”, January 2008
[2] Fraser. M, “Consultation Document on the Rural Schools (Scotland) Bill”, January 2008
[3] Bergstrom. F and Blank. M, “ A Survey on the Development of Independent Schools in Sweden” 2005