Minister defends new school closure process

Could we see scenes like this again - residents fighting rural school closures?
Could we see scenes like this again - residents fighting rural school closures?

There are growing concerns that changes to the law on school closures could make it easier for local authorities to close rural schools.

Over the next five years Scottish Borders Council need to make £11 million of savings but whether school closures are being considered as part of the cut backs has not yet been revealed - SBC’s director of education, Glenn Rodger stressing that they are “at the start of the process of transforming the way we deliver education” and there are no specific proposals yet.

The last time Scottish Borders Council went through the school closure consultation process was in 2004 when Hutton, Burnmouth and Eccles/Leitholm Primary Schools were considered. Burnmouth and Hutton both closed but Eccles/Leitholm remained open and since 2009 has shared its headteacher with Coldstream Primary.

Education secretary Mike Russell stressed the educational benefit to pupils of shutting a school will remain a “central part of the decision-making process”.

The Scottish Government plans to change the existing legislation to clarify the presumption against closure that exists for rural schools.

In addition, clear financial information will have to be set out as part of any proposals to shut down a school. A proposal that councils would no longer need to show there would be an educational benefit to youngsters from shutting a school is not being taken forward.

Local MSP John Lamont believes that the change in the law will actually make it harder to close rural schools.

He said: “Rural schools can be the lifeblood of local communities, helping to ensure that children are educated in the area that they have grown up in. With the next nearest school not being for miles, it can make a huge difference to parents and their children to have a local option when it comes to schooling.

“However, with recent budget restraints rural schools have become the target for officials looking to cut their spending. It is often totally against the will of the community, who are all too often ignored in any final decision.

“These new rules promise to change that. The independent panel that will consider each closure will provide impartiality in any final decision. By also stopping further closure applications being made for five years after a decision, it will save schools from constant attempts to close them.”

“Most importantly however, the rules dictating that any closure must be for the benefit of the child look like they are here to stay. The priority must be the education well-being of the children affected, and I’m glad that this remains a major consideration.”