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Ca canny over closures

Authorities keen to close small rural schools have been chided by the Education Minister for raising "unnecessary alarm" in many communities.

Moray Council, which backed off a long-term closures plan involving 21 schools, is one within the sights of Peter Peacock, who has issued a further written statement on the issue. It updates his guidance of last September.

Mr Peacock says some councils have sown confusion by failing to spell out the precise status of closure plans.

"There has in some cases been an insufficient distinction made between what might better be described as informal, preliminary soundings and the more formal, statutory consultations involving proposals which have emerged from a thorough appraisal of possible options, which are well developed and for which the resources for implementation have been clearly identified," he states in a letter to the parliamentary education committee.

Mr Peacock continues: "If the proposal in question is just one of a range of future 'possibles', and not necessarily in early prospect, then it would seem to me important that that should be made abundantly clear."

He believes the quality of some consultations could improve and is opening talks with the authorities at national level to head off concerns that the actions of some are damaging the integrity of closures procedures.

The minister says he has followed the progress of a significant number of consultations since he issued his advice last year. "I think the guidance has a beneficial effect on the ways councils handle these matters," he asserts.

Mr Peacock's trawl through the closure plans has revealed "a very full spectrum of final decisions", from confirming the original proposal to close to withdrawing it, with a large range of alternatives in between.

Different configurations of mergers and closures can emerge through public consultation which can lead to further formal processes.

Mr Peacock welcomes councils' flexibility and willingness to look at different options and to change tack or timescale. In closures that have been referred to him, he has seen "a focus on consultation, openness and transparency".

But the minister is to remind parents about the different roles of the authorities and the Executive after several groups of campaigners pressed him to intervene over contentious closures.

"I am concerned that parents sometimes appear to be less than clear about the role of ministers and councils in the process, exactly what their statutory rights are and what they - and indeed we - expect of councils," Mr Peacock writes.

Walter Humes 23

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