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Arrogant councils think they know best

Estates management is a euphemism for closing schools down, writes Michael Russell

As a former spin doctor, let me doff my metaphorical cap to the anonymous author of "communications and consultation issues", a lengthy appendix to the new "good practice guide" on school estates management, recently issued by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

I have seldom read a better thought-through proposal for media manipulation which, if followed to the letter, should (alas) make the whole process of closing schools much easier than it has been.

How to close schools with less fuss is, indeed, the entire subject of this "school estates management" document, no matter its double-speak title.

For, in the shadowy world of local authority chief officers and senior civil servants, "management" is a synonym for saving money and "estates"

are the bricks and mortar within which young people are taught.

"Estates management" is, therefore, not about ensuring that our nation's schools stay open and are well used. Rather, it is about how they can be closed down at the stroke of an official pen, no matter what parents, pupils and teachers want.

Some five years ago, COSLA chickened out of drawing up clear guidelines to help voters understand the mess that is the official school closure process, despite a request by the Scottish Parliament's education committee to do so. They fudged the matter again when they conspired with the Scottish Executive to produce a flawed and bureaucratic strategy for Scotland's school buildings in early 2003.

Now, with the almost inevitable prospect of a further large tranche of closure proposals after next year's council elections (no matter what some political manifestos say), they have returned to the issue in a way which attempts to strengthen the writ of closure-minded officials, while simultaneously undermining the rights of everyone else.

This is not to say that everything in the guide is unacceptable. No one but a fool would argue that every school that presently exists must go on existing for ever. Communities change and buildings wear out or become unfit for purpose.

There are some sensible caveats in the document, not least an acknowledgment that local authority economic and community development teams should be involved in examining patterns of population and seeking ways to invigorate areas which appear to be losing sustainable numbers of young families, as already happens in the Highlands.

There are some interesting examples of good practice, though it might also have been instructive to learn of spectacularly bad practice, such as the round of closures planned in 2001 by Argyll and Bute Council, which had to be abandoned when the official consultation was revealed as deeply and unfairly biased, or the disgraceful approach of Scottish Borders Council to viable primary schools such as Hutton.

Nonetheless, the more of COSLA's advice in this "non-prescriptive document for councils" one reads, the more one realises that democracy is not a concept much favoured by the "memberofficer working group" which drew it up. From the conspiratorial reference to the "discreet pull-out resource"

(the spin doctoring section), to the slavish centrality of some "corporate vision" of school usage which appears to take absolute precedence irrespective of the desires and wishes of voters, the document reeks of arrogance and a certainty that a local authority always knows best.

It is, therefore, the basic assumptions underlying the document that need to have the feet ca'd from under them. First - whatever the misguided views of the Accounts Commission, which have been swallowed hook, line and sinker by cash-strapped councils throughout Scotland - there is no crisis arising from the under-usage of school buildings.

To assert that is the equivalent, as Professor Neil Kay has rightly pointed out, of asserting that there is a crisis in the under-usage of professional football grounds, seeing as most of them are full only on rare occasions.

School buildings do not have to be overflowing quantitatively to be operating perfectly well qualitatively, and it is a nonsense to confuse the two issues.

Second, the views of the school community and the wider community in which the school is set are central to a school's future, not peripheral to it.

We need more local democracy, not less, and a council should not be permitted to enact a closure without the permission of those whom the building serves.

Voters are not stupid and, if a case is well made and is the right case, it will succeed. If it fails, it fails for democratic reasons. A council's "corporate vision" should never take precedence over democratic choice.

Third, investment in new forms of education - including e-schooling - means that a new approach to the "school estate" may well be desirable, but it will never succeed if it is based on threatening those things which give a community a sense of itself. Chief among those is the school, followed by the post office, the pub, the shop and a transport service.

If the school goes, such things often go too. So every effort should be made to secure the future of rural schools, while at the same time helping rural communities to envisage and develop alternative services which can take them into the next decade and beyond. The big issue here is often the highly restrictive nature of the planning process: if COSLA wants to make a real difference, it should start by loosening the stays of officialdom in that process.

Finally, Scottish education - and the prospects for Scotland's children - are made not one whit better by the closure of any good school. Overall educational quality has not risen, despite the long-term addiction to closure of many senior educational managers. Their threadbare justifications, in terms of buildings suitable for the curriculum and spaces ill-suited for modern learning, have turned out to be so much hot air.

In fact, more small and flexible schools are needed, not less. What Scotland needs less of is self-serving, mealy-mouthed advice from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator

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