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Harvesting the empty places in the system

Councillors in Dumfries and Galloway need to be bold when weighing up which schools to rebuild and which schools to close, says Ann Hill

INDEPENDENT consultants Townsend and Turner were commissioned by Dumfries and Galloway Council to review the provision of education in our area and to put together proposals on the best way forward for consideration by councillors, school boards and parents.

They suggest the closure of 41 primary schools (including my village primary), the possible closure of two secondaries, the building of nine new primaries and the refurbishment of the remaining schools. This is neither unexpected nor unwelcome. Neither is it definite. What we have now is an opportunity for school boards and communities to look at the plans with an open mind.

The background to this exercise has its origins in abortive attempts in March 1997 to close six single-teacher primaries, after which the education committee decided to review the position of all schools. In November 1999, the council consulted school boards to establish a set of principles for a future review.

Since that time school boards, teachers and others with an interest in education have been involved in the consultation and this resulted in the following criteria being set and agreed by the education committee.

* A school's viability might be considered in terms of: significant projected decline in pupil numbers; inability to create meaningful class groups with consequent loss of "socialisation" for pupils; the burden falling on teaching staff to develop and deliver the whole curriculum across multi-agestage groups; the additional burden of management and administrative tasks falling on staff; the level of attainment and the potential to raise the standard of education.

* A school's viability on economic grounds might be considered in terms of: condition of the buildings; health and safety factors; under-utilisation; cost per pupil relative to other schools.

* Other factors: the importance of the school to its community; community use of the school premises - and potential use; distance of a school from suitable alternative schooling; cost of additional transport; possible loss of Government allowances if the "small school factor" is lost.

It is recognised that we have an over-provision of pupil places in Dumfries and Galloway and are required by Audit Scotland to consider whether the service could be provided more efficiently. The council has been doing this over a number of years but has not made much headway. The fact that our school buildings are in desperate need of repair is also recognised by school boards throughout the region.

Dumfries and Galloway is currently preparing a bid for funding under a public-private partnership. Success largely depends on the education department being able to demonstrate that it has seriously considered empty pupil places in schools and the state of the buildings.

It is important to remember that there are safeguards before a school can be closed. The Secretary of State's consent is required if it is operating at more than 80 per cent capacity, the school is a denominational school, and the proposed alternative school is more than eight kilometres away.

Formal consultation must offer the opportunity for comment to all parents of current pupils, the parents of those eligible to enrol in the next two years, school boards and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church (in the case of a decision affecting a Catholic school).

The most important message coming from parents, school board members and teachers has been that they do not want to see this issue dragging on. They simply want a decision taken by councillors following consultation with school boards and the wider communities. They also want the decision taken on educational grounds and not financial ones.

The Scottish School Board Association will consult with member boards during September and boards will be advised to consult with parents and teachers at the same time. The council's area committees will discuss this issue during the same period. Boards in Dumfries and Galloway are being encouraged to look at this with an open mind. However, councillors will also be required to play their part. When the time comes, they will make the desperately hard decision on how many of the proposed closures should be carried through.

Parents will respect them if they are honest and have a vision for the future. However, they will not support them if they simply vote politically for fear that they may not get elected next time round. Our young people and their teachers must always come first.

Ann Hill, chief executive of the Scottish School Board Association, is a member of Mouswald primary school board and Dumfries High school board.

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