Landmark report may safeguard rural schools

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Small rural schools can deliver the Curriculum for Excellence to its full extent, conclude the Commission on Rural Education who havepublished their final report today (Friday).

The Commision - which was set up by the Scottish Government and COSLA in 2011 to look at the delivery of rural education - delayed their final recommendations in light of the ongoing legal dispute over the future of Western Isles schools, but have now completed their work.

They recommend that the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 should give stronger guidance to councils but said Scottish Ministers should still have the power to call-in decisions based on the individual merits of each case and not merely compliance with the legal process.

Sheriff David Sutherland who charied the Commission said: “I am pleased to present the Report of the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education. We have taken a careful look at the issues facing education in rural areas. Our Report makes thirty-eight Recommendations aimed at protecting the best of what we have today and delivering improvements for future young people.

“It was clear that education should not be looked at in isolation. Sustainable rural communities depend on a range of services including schools, but also jobs and housing and that is why our Report emphasises the need to focus on rural regeneration.

“Scottish rural schools are and can deliver to the highest levels. We were pleased to find that there was no barrier to rural schools delivering an excellent education or achieving to the fullest extent of Curriculum for Excellence.

“The issues about when and why a rural school should be closed were the most difficult the Commission faced, and despite the different experiences Commission members brought to our task, the Commission was able to reach a high level of agreement around clear recommendations. I hope that these provide a template for improving and sustaining rural education in Scotland.”

The Main recommendations are:

* Many local authorities reach high standards of consultation and working with their communities and it is vital that these standards are achieved consistently. This should be underpinned by stronger guidance from government on the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010.

* Educational Benefit Statements must improve in quality and continue to be a very important part of closure proposals.

* School closure proposals should not be removed from the financial issues that are often relevant. Instead it should be required that transparent, accurate financial information is provided to underpin any financial argument that is made. * Ministers should continue to have a power to call-in Councils’ school closure proposals, determining these proposals on their merits not merely compliance with the legal process. Ministers should have an additional option of remitting decisions back to the local authority to take them again.

* Accessible early years provision and wraparound care are very important in rural areas. There is an opportunity to develop innovative solutions including using rural schools as community hubs for integrated services.

Minister for Learning Alasdair Allan said:

“As we have said on many occasions, securing high quality educational opportunities is key to the sustainability of rural communities. However, this presents many challenges, which is why the Scottish Government and CoSLA established the Commission to look at the future delivery of education in rural areas.

“I would like to thank Sheriff Sutherland and his team for their hard work over many months. I know that they have seen many examples of good practice and creative and committed teachers in our rural schools.

“I will carefully consider today’s recommendations as we look at how the Scottish Government, CoSLA and individual councils can improve how education is delivered in rural Scotland. We need a sustainable network of rural schools that can continue to deliver the best possible education for Scotland’s pupils as we foster a generation of young people equipped with the right skills to succeed in the global jobs market.

“We expect to make a fuller response to this report in the coming weeks.”

COSLA President, Councillor David O’Neill, said: “Local Authorities in Scotland are committed to providing all children in Scotland with the best possible education no matter where they live. I want to go on record and thank Sheriff David Sutherland and the wider Commission for the commitment and time spent producing a thoughtful and comprehensive report. It is right that COSLA and Scottish Government take some time to work out how we can take the report forward, but it is worth saying that my initial impression is that there is much within report that we would want to see implemented in full”

Councillor Douglas Chapman, COSLA spokesperson for Education, Children and Young People added:

“This is a good and balanced report, and we need to take the time to look at it detail. Consulting on closing a school is not an easy matter for either local authorities or communities, and Commission recognises this challenge in its report. We wanted a report that constructively attempted to resolve the challenges faced by authorities and communities, and I believe this is exactly what the Commission has delivered.”

The Report and further information are available here

The Scottish Government and COSLA will now consider the Commission’s Report.

The future of Carloway Primary schools and Shawbost S1/2 are still unclear but a further hearing in the legal dispute between the Comhairle and the Scottish Government is due to take place in the coming weeks.