Scottish Government propose moratorium on school closures

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Comhairle nan Eilean say they welcome the review of school closures legislation announced by the Scottish Government.

Education Minister Michael Russell announced that Scottish local authorities have been asked not to progress or bring forward new proposals to close any rural schools for one year.

A Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education will be established to consider the provision of education in rural communities and to take a comprehensive look at the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010, which includes a clear legislative presumption against the closure of such schools and the need for educational benefits to be the driving force in any proposed closure.

This may get in the way of the Comhairle’s plans to progress consultations on the closure of some schools.

However Leader of the Comhairle Angus Campbell said he hoped the review would allow greater transparency in the process.

“The Comhairle has sought clarity on schools closure legislation as we could not see why the Scottish Government allowed some schools to close but others, which went through exactly the same process, were prevented from closing, despite there being educational benefits. Hopefully this review will allow greater transparency in the process and that can only be welcomed. To aid that clarity the Comhairle is continuing the process of judicial review of those decisions whilst maintaining a dialogue with the Scottish Government.”

At the Education and Children’s Services meeting earlier this week, Chair Morag Munro reported that the Comhairle had been in touch with the Scottish Government regarding potential negotiations on the discussion to prevent closure of four schools last year, but they had not heard back as yet.

The Comhairle is seeking early discussions with COSLA on the issue of a moratorium and will press the Scottish Government to suspend any request for a moratorium on school closures until after the COSLA Convention, due to be held in Stornoway on 24th June.

Cllr Campbell added: “I would hope that COSLA will have the opportunity to fully discuss this matter and form a collective view before the Scottish Government proceeds with this issue. That would be in the spirit of partnership that only last week the Scottish Government was saying they wanted with local government.”

Local MSP Alasdair Allan, who is now part of the Scottish Government’s Education Ministerial team, said he believed the proposed moratorium on schools closures was ‘necessary to ensure a future for Scotland’s rural communities.”

He commented: “Although I am a Minister in the Education Department, which is putting this policy forward to Scotland’s Local Authorities, I should say from the outset that I will be allowed no role or involvement in decisions regarding the future of schools in the Western Isles, for obvious reasons.

“However, I believe that the Scottish Government is doing the right thing for rural schools throughout Scotland in its efforts to negotiate a year’s breathing space, and setting up the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education. The Government is clearly committed to ensuring a real voice for parts of Scotland where school closures can have a serious economic impact.

“I hope that the Government and Local Authorities throughout Scotland will now work together to achieve these ends.”

Announcing his proposal yesterday which is scheduled to run from June 20 this year to June 20 2012, Education Minsiter Mr Russell said:

“The delivery of education in rural communities is about much more than a school building, it is fundamental to the social and economic make-up of a community. That is why it is the right of individual communities to have genuine consultation based on accurate information and why there is, and will remain, a clear legislative presumption against closure.

“However, since the Schools Consultation Act came into force there have been differences in the interpretation of the Act. I believe that these differences have resulted in the original intentions of the Act - that the educational, not financial, benefits should be the main consideration - not always being followed.

“To allow for a comprehensive and fair assessment of the closures process, I have asked for a one year moratorium during which local authorities will not propose rural schools for closure.

“During this period a new Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education will be tasked with, amongst other things, reviewing the legislation and its application and making recommendations on best practice on the delivery of education in rural areas. It will also look at innovation and the link between rural education and rural regeneration.

“I will announce more details on its remit and membership shortly, but it will have licence to think radically and will return at the start of the next year with fresh proposals.”