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Council leaders vow to fight rural closures

David Henderson reports on the issues that dominated the Scottish National Party's conference in Inverness. In opting to save the 29-pupil Tomintoul Secondary, the SNP in Moray has set a pattern for other councils to follow, Margo Howe, Moray's education convener, told The TES Scotland.

The council has rejected plans to close nine primaries and last week the 13-strong SNP group dismissed any thoughts of closing the four-year secondary at Tomintoul after strong parental and community opposition.

Each pupil costs around Pounds 8,000 to educate and the school roll is only 17 per cent of capacity, but Mrs Howe denied the council had ducked a difficult decision. "It's taken more bottle to tell the Scottish Office to get lost, " she said.

The party was protecting a rural community and its economic viability and if the Government wanted to do the "dirty" on schools like Tomintoul it should do it itself.

Andrew Welsh, the SNP's parliamentary spokesman on education, only two weeks ago restated its commitment to keeping schools open wherever possible, although two small primaries in rural Angus were closed over the summer. Brian Milne, education convener in Angus, admitted a number of other schools were "educationally on the borderline" but said the savings from closure were minimal.

Mrs Howe and Janet Law, Perth and Kinross education convener and national education spokesperson, say that SNP councils have deliberately set out to consult with parents and the wider public.

Mrs Howe maintains there are educational reasons for keeping Tomintoul open, "although we are not blinkered to the fact that it does cost". Transport for younger children was a key consideration given the alternative of 50-minute journeys to Speyside High.

Last week at Forres Academy, Mrs Howe was explaining to parents how budget difficulties would hit the education authority. "We were telling parents now before it happens. They accepted there would be cuts, but they said, 'please don't touch our teachers'," she said.

Mrs Law added: "We are kidding people if the public is not aware of the problems coming up. It is going to be a very severe test of our model of openness."

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