Closed minds in thewar on empty desks

Everyone has a theory about what went wrong with the recent school closure programmes in Glasgow and elsewhere. There can be no doubt that politics had a large part to play in deciding the outcome, but, recalling my days in Strathclyde as the education press officer who dealt with phases one and two of the now historic Adapting to Change document, I have to say that the right public relations approach seems to have been all but lacking during the recent battles over empty desks.

I am not blaming anyone for that. Neither am I casting any doubts on the competence of colleagues in other authorities who simply did not have time to take sophisticated approaches to a very old problem. The method required by law to close a school generates emotion all round, whereas rational though is required from education authority, schools, parents and community.

The issue of quasi-legal photocopied reports, written with a complexity which would defeat the average Higher English candidate, is simply not working. It produces adverse reaction from parents, who then do not attempt to even consider the arguments advanced for closure, rezoning or amalgamation. By the time the luckless official or elected member stands up in front of parents at a consultation meeting, the result is confrontation, entrenched positions and a degree of ill feeling which lasts in communities for a surprising number of years, especially when parents see their house prices fall.

The hard fact is that people, the partners in the education equation, do really get hurt by the system that the law demands. Conflict rules out rational argument and debate, while the constant reports in the media of "hit lists" and schools being "axed" and "saved" by "parent power" do not help.

Having lived through the public relations nightmare that was Strathclyde's grand closure programme, I can only say that there is another way to do it. Harry Dutch, then head of public relations, implored the council not to repeat its previous confrontational approach when a second phase of Strathclyde's closures was proposed. We suggested spending some time on the presentation of the case.

To deal with closures in Glasgow's Castlemilk and Drumchapel, Glasgow division he gave us our head, complete with budget, to get over the message of the need for rationalisation. The result was a telephone helpline for parents, leaflets in tabloid language, summarising the proposals in bullet-point fashion and printed on good quality paper, complete with pictures of pupils in local schools.

There was even a take-home video, giving the reasons for rationalisation, while Malcolm Green, as chair of the education committee, took his area review groups into the heart of Castlemilk and Drumchapel, to seek out local views and to discuss at length what might be acceptable on both sides. Very often resistance vanished when it was made clear that savings would be ploughed back into the community. Parental objections had often been based on hearsay and rumour about a receiving school, rather than on any real case for resisting closure.

We also called all Glasgow's media to a briefing session to put over our point of view and made sure that regular information was put out. A helpline in particular caught the news desk imagination as a new approach to an old problem.

And the result? Schools such as Glenwood Secondary in Castlemilk closed without a whimper of protest and the new, enhanced Castlemilk High was launched with due local pride. Langside College established its outreach centre in a wing of what was left of Glenwood and several primary schools amalgamated. The same was true of Drumchapel, showing to me at least that effective presentation can cut out a great deal of the conflict that wastes so much creative energy.

Of course, there was a lot more that we wanted to do, such as holding open days in proposed receiving schools, and laying on buses to take both parents and pupils to see and try out the new. Sadly, we never got that far, nor were we allowed to repeat the exercise. With a change in chair of the education committee there was a return to the "culling the herd" approach, and the public relations department was deployed only in the sterile role of supplying roll sizes and figures about potential savings.

The problem now is rooted firmly in the culture of conflict. It may not be too late to approach closures more constructively, but someone must take a long, hard look at the legislation surrounding closures and seeks a gentler, but probably more effective way forward. That would inevitably have to make full use of tried and tested public relations approaches.

Hugh Dougherty is in charge of public relations in East Renfrewshire. He writes in a personal capacity.

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