Councils across Scotland are challenged with providing a better education service with diminishing budgets. Rising to this challenge requires creative thinking and possibly difficult decisions. Responding to auditors' recommendations, Argyll and Bute Council is consulting on proposals to reduce its estate of 80 primary schools by 25 through a programme of mergers.
When we first started to consider this, we were planning for budget cuts of around 2.6 per cent. The surprise announcement from the Scottish Government (TESS, December 17) means the cuts sit at 4.94 per cent, leaving us a long way short of the pound;15 million savings we now need to make.
Education accounts for 36 per cent of our expenditure. Protecting it means wider and deeper cuts elsewhere.
In small rural communities, a primary school can be the focus of the community and is viewed by some as a key factor to draw in new residents. However, many of our school rolls are decreasing, leaving 59 per cent of our schools less than half occupied. Clearly the presence of a school isn't attractive enough to keep classrooms full. Many of our school buildings need extensive refurbishment to bring them up to the necessary standard. The cost of educating children here varies from pound;3,000 per year to pound;30,000 per year - a figure that's as inequitable as it is unsustainable.
No one entertains the idea of school closures lightly. Our consultation process aims to give everyone the opportunity to share their ideas on how we could avoid closures. To date we have received some positive and creative suggestions which we will investigate further.
School closures are unpalatable, but buildings don't deliver learning. Councils in a similar position need positive dialogue with everyone affected to identify viable alternatives. Argyll and Bute Council finds itself in an unenviable situation which could become more common across the whole of Scotland as budget cuts begin to take effect.
Councillor Ellen Morton, spokesperson for education and lifelong learning, Argyll and Bute Council.