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Executive signals that it won't duck closures

THE Scottish Executive has signalled its determination not to run away from school closures when proposals are referred to ministers for final approval.

As decisions on closures are given added edge under the glare of parliamentary scrutiny for the first time, particularly in rural areas, Peter Peacock, Deputy Children and Education Minister, pointedly refused to pull the rug from under local authorities when he replied to a debate last week.

Councils had a responsibility to plan for the long-term provision of schooling "not just a duty to current schools and the children in them", Mr Peacock told MSPs. "That is very difficult and challenging and I am not going to criticise any council for exploring the issues. It is their duty."

His comments were swiftly followed by the Executive's decision to back Moray's plans to close Boharm primary and the two-year Tomintoul Secondary. A third Moray school, Glenrinnes primary, is also on ministers' desks awaiting a ruling. That proposal sparked last week's debate which was initiated by Margaret Ewing, the local MSP.

Closures have to be referred to the Executive in the case of primaries which are more than five miles from the nearest alternative, secondaries where the closest alternative is more than 10 miles away, where denominational schools are involved and where schools are more than 80 per cent full.

Mr Peacock's steer to local authorities not to shirk "tough decisions" is in contrast to the Government's stance in England where there has been a "presumption" against the closure of small rural schools since 1998 when ministers were under intense pressure from the countryside lobby.

Since then only eight small rural schools have closed. A further pound;40 million package to support schools in England with fewer than 200 pupils was announced on Tuesday.

During the debate, Mr Peacock reterated the formula devised by Brian Wilson, the former minister, that authorities should apply the test of "proportionate advantage". This is intended to weigh in the balance the educational, financial and community arguments, although Mr Peacock acknowledged that "it would be naive to suggest that those issues are always capable of fine distinction."

Not unexpectedly, as former convener of Highland Council, Mr Peacock said the Executive wanted to see a strong network of rural schools "but not necessarily the network we have today".

He said pupils do benefit from being with a wide range of other youngsters. But, he added, "that choice does not exist everywhere" and he challenged the notion that a sound education could not be provided in a small school.

Moray welcomed the Executive's decision and pledged that savings from the two closures amounting to pound;240,000 a year would be reinvested in its other schools. That will simply reinforce the contention of MSPs who spoke in last week's debate that the stimulus behind closures is fundamentally financial.

Meanwhile the Parliament's education committee, supported by Mr Peacock, approved a cross-party move to add an "Orkney amendment" to the education Bill which would allow pupils to stay at home for their schooling "if it would be unreasonable to expect a pupil to attend a suitable educational establishment".

The need for such a provision has been highlighted by the position of three young children in the Orkney island of Auskerry where there is no school, requiring the family either to move away or send their children to another island for their primary education and to secondary school in Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland.

Ministers hope this decision will send a symbolic message that a Bill which is about the big picture can also reflect the importance of small issues.

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