The appetite for local councillors to close schools across Scotland has been seriously diminished this week after a ruling by the Education Secretary against the Western Isles Council.
Plans to rationalise schools in the islands were thrown into confusion after Fiona Hyslop rejected the council's plans to close four S1-2 secondary schools.
Her decision comes just a couple of weeks after HMIE criticised councillors for their delay in closing schools and commended them for finally deciding to shut the four small secondaries, Daliburgh and Paible in the Uists and Shawbost and Lionel on Lewis. But, in its advice to ministers, it emerges that HMIE has told them there would be "no educational advantage" in closing the Lewis schools.
They were not due to close until 2011 or when refurbishment was completed at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, the only six-year secondary in Lewis to which the S1-2 pupils would transfer. In its recent report on the authority, HMIE said that delay in itself posed "a major funding challenge" for the council.
The council has one of the highest proportions of surplus school places in Scotland, since primary and secondary rolls have fallen from 6,300 to 3,730 over the past 30 years. The closure plans had to be referred to Ms Hyslop since the nearest secondaries for the pupils, Sgoil Lionacleit in the Uists and the Nicolson, were more than 10 miles away. Three other S1-2 secondaries will close since they did not have to be referred to ministers on distance grounds.
She based her decision on her view that the consultations were either incompetent or inadequate. They were not in line with the new guidance to councils on school closures which the Cabinet Secretary issued in October 2007 and which are widely viewed as having "a presumption against closure".
Ms Hyslop had previously crossed swords with the council when she refuted its educational justification for closing the two-year secondaries, which was that transferring pupils at the age of 14 was at odds with the new 3-18 curriculum. There was no incompatibility, she told the authority.
Angus Campbell, leader of the Western Isles Council, said he would be calling an early meeting of the council to discuss "this disappointing and damaging decision". He suggested it could torpedo the Pounds 100 million Western Isles Schools Project to build five new schools, including the work at the Nicolson Institute which serves over 40 per cent of the school population.
The uncertainty could not have come at a worse moment for the council as it tries to build support for another controversial consultation exercise, which could lead to the number of primary schools being cut almost in half from 36 to 19. The plan is to create larger primaries and pre-school centres in five "learning communities".