Education Secretary Michael Russell made no secret of his commitment to rural schools in recent weeks. And last month local authorities’ fears were realised as he introduced a “moratorium” on closures.
Councils’ frustration wasn’t eased by the fact that their umbrella body COSLA had been bypassed in the plan. In a unilateral move, Russell wrote to council leaders urging them to suspend all current and pending closure consultations until June 2012. Councils are not bound to comply with the moratorium – but if they don’t the Cabinet Secretary has the power to enforce it through emergency legislation. The reaction from local government was predictably hostile. Given the financial pressures authorities are under, one council leader claimed, a ban on school closures doesn’t “add up”.
As well as this immediate measure, Russell also moved to address the issue in the longer term. A Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education will examine how closure proposals are being dealt with under the current legislation. The initiative follows the Cabinet Secretary’s admission that the 2010 Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act, introduced by the last SNP administration, is in need of review. The Act was designed to strengthen the consultation procedure around closures and make the process fairer and more transparent. But as with much legislation, the practice has not been as effective as envisioned. While many councils have adhered to the Act, others have been less compliant. Likewise, ministers’ use of the ‘call-in’ enshrined in the legislation has been criticised as inconsistent.
Under the current legislation the system is clearly not working as planned. Closures are still leading too often to lengthy battles between councils, parents and communities and indeed blame games between national and local government. The establishment of a commission to consider this is to be welcomed. It is understood that it will take a broader view of how education is delivered in remote and rural areas, looking beyond debates about school buildings to more imaginative and innovative approaches, perhaps including community involvement and greater use of technology.
But above all, it must devise an approach to the delivery of rural education across Scotland that is consistent, fair and financially sustainable.