Scotland politics

Changes to process for closing schools in Scotland outlined

Pupils drawing
Image caption The handling of school closures is an emotive subject for communities

The law covering school closures is to be changed in a bid to make the process more transparent.

The Scottish government said it wants to make sure parents and communities are better informed and can take part in decision making.

Planned changes include clarifying the presumption against closing rural schools.

Clear financial information will also have to be made available on the case for shutting a school.

The move is a response to the recommendations of the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education.

The changes include:

  • Clarifying the presumption against the closure of rural schools
  • Requiring clear financial information to be set out for a school closure proposal
  • Allowing ministers to draw on additional advice from Education Scotland when they're considering closure proposals

It was also confirmed that councils will still need to demonstrate how a closure proposal may benefit a child's education.

The government ran a consultation on its proposed changes over the summer.

Education Secretary Mike Russell said: "This was a valuable consultation, allowing local authorities, parents, communities and others with an interest in this area to express their views. Responses to the consultation broadly supported the changes to the law proposed by the Scottish government.

"Our commitment to making these changes to the consultation process for school closures underlines the government's belief that education authorities must give extremely careful consideration to a range of matters when bringing forward any closure proposal.

"I am absolutely determined that educational benefit should remain an important part of any proposal - and I am convinced these amendments we will bring forward will ensure this remains central to the decision-making process."

Full confidence

Sandy Longmuir from the campaigning group the Scottish Rural Schools Network welcomed the proposed changes.

He said: "The information a decision is based on should be the best possible.

"We've got so many examples (in the past) where the information put forward was quite simply wrong."

The response to the consultation on changes to the law also confirms the government's desire to establish an independent review body to determine school closure proposals that ministers have called in.

The idea is to ensure the process was both thorough and objective and both communities and education authorities had full confidence that there was no element of political influence.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of teaching union the EIS, also welcomed the moves to make the process surrounding potential school closures more transparent.

He said: "The EIS believes that the decision to potentially close any school should never be made on purely financial grounds, and all decisions must be taken with the best interests of children's education as the main factor.

"Proposed school closures are often very challenging for communities, for parents, pupils and teachers so it is important that any such proposals are handled in an appropriate and transparent manner and with proper consultation with the school community."

Greater clarity

The Scottish Conservatives said the best educational interests of all pupils must be at the forefront of decision-making.

The party's spokeswoman for young people, Liz Smith, added: "In the existing situation, too many communities have fallen victim to a highly political process which often sees local authorities and the Scottish government at loggerheads, and that is unacceptable.

"An independent referral mechanism should help to address this, but that will only be the case if the powers of ministers are both clearly defined and significantly curtailed in comparison to the present system, and if the role of local authorities is given much greater clarity."

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur MSP said: "As a parent of a child at a school recently identified for closure, I know only too well the impact this threat can have on pupils, parents, staff, and the wider community.

"Therefore the idea of a five year moratorium before any closure proposals can be considered again makes sense.

"However, in terms of referring closure proposals Mr Russell wants to retain the right to call in council decisions, but leave a separate body to determine if those decisions are justified. In other words, Mr Russell would like to play to the gallery while leaving others to carry the can."

The umbrella body which represents local authorities, Cosla, welcomed the changes but said the Scottish government had "missed the opportunity" to allow councils to honestly state educational factors behind a closure proposal.

Educational neutrality

Cosla's education, children and young people's spokesman, Cllr Douglas Chapman said: "I believe that many of the recommendations of the commission will give more confidence to parents and communities that any school closures are considered with the utmost integrity, detail and are considered across a wide range of factors.

"I am very disappointed that we could not come to an agreement with the Scottish government around the issue of proving educational benefit or educational neutrality.

"I believe we need to continue working constructively to ensure that children, parents and communities know their council is working hard to provide the most detailed, quality information and that they are doing so in a logical, consistent, straight forward and professional manner, long before any decisions are made."

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