There is something anomalous about the rural schools closure debate, which is the topic of this week's News Focus (p10). At a time when local councils are required to slash their education budgets, and schools face the prospect of losing teachers, learning support and classroom assistants, there are plenty of protests - but nobody expects the cuts to enhance children's education. Yet with proposals for small school closures, which could save hundreds of thousands of pounds, the councils have to make a statement of educational benefit under the new Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 which came into force last year.
All decisions about education cuts are unpopular, but none quite like the closure of a rural school. Teachers may fear for their jobs and take action against changes to their pay and conditions (p6); protesters may argue that larger class sizes will damage children's education. But emotions run far, far higher when a small close-knit community fears it will lose its local school.
Luss Primary, one of 12 schools on Argyll and Bute's hit list, was inspected in 2005. But even now, reading the inspectors' words, you get a feel for the 23-pupil school (now 21) at the heart of a village. The children were "proud to be at Luss Primary" and their parents valued the "strong sense of community". The building was bright, attractive and well maintained and the pupils had effective learning experiences within the school grounds and the wider community - they had created a willow dome and a wildlife garden in the extensive grounds, and helped to redevelop the local park. Staff knew pupils very well, the children felt safe and were well looked after, and parents and toddlers were encouraged to meet there. These were the impartial comments of HMIE, and in every aspect the school feels woven into the very fabric of the community. So, how hard must it be now to argue that there is educational benefit in unravelling those threads?
Argyll and Bute has been faced with an impossible task, with the largest cuts of any local authority in Scotland this year. The council was torn apart by the school closures row, with SNP councillors walking out on the joint administration when its opposition to the proposals was narrowly defeated. LibDems and Conservatives were left to pick up the pieces and Councillor Ellen Morton was passed the poisoned chalice of deciding which schools should go. She visited 66 primaries and the number on the hit list fell from 26 to 12. Now the battle carries on over them. The next key date will be 19 April, when councillors will put the proposals to the public. How they will make up for the prospective savings lost on the 14 schools that have been rescued remains unclear. But whatever happens next, Argyll and Bute will be closely watched by other rural councils. Highland and Aberdeenshire could be next in line.