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Holyrood steers clear of closures

THE Scottish Executive's commitment to sustaining rural communities has failed to give any cast-iron guarantees to small primaries facing the council axe, an issue rousing the passions in Moray and Argyll and Bute.

Ross Finnie, Rural Affairs Minister, this week launched a policy attack on rural development, announcing a study on retaining essential local services and a task force on poverty, but pointedly declined to pass judgment on the decisions of education authorities.

Rural Scotland: A New Approach has a chapter on education but is confined to broad and ambivalent statements about the distinctive role of rural primaries, the reality that there are 800 with rolls of fewer than 100 children and that pupils should have the "fullest educational experience".

Two weeks ago, Peter Peacock, Deputy Children and Education Minister, and former convener in Highland, reiterated the Executive's determination not to run away from closures when cases are referred to it under statute.

The Parliament's education, culture and sport committee on Tuesday also ducked full-scale interference in the closure programmes of Moray and Argyll and Bute, in spite of pressure from the SNP which wants a delay in the planned closure of a primary in Moray and an inquiry into six proposed closures in Argyll and Bute.

Mary Mulligan, Labour's education convener, said: "It would not do us any good to leave the door open on school closures."

Ken Macintosh, Labour, said: "We do not intend the education committee f the Parliament to be an appeals committee for rural schools. We could be inundated with hundreds of special cases."

Michael Russell, SNP, said any closure of a rural school dealt a devastating blow to communities. "There must be transparency, accountability and faith in the process and communities in Argyll and Bute have lost faith in the process. This Parliament is about helping people with processes as much as anything else."

Mr Russell added: "Rural schools should be seen to close themselves rather than by diktat and fear."

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP shadow education minister, said there were strong accusations that the consultation in Argyll and Bute was "seriously flawed, relying on information that is being misinterpreted and misapplied".

The committee, however, opted for a report by Labour's Cathy Peattie within a month. By then a separate inquiry carried out by Liberal Democrat Jamie Stone should be available. Mr Stone revealed that Moray has finally agreed to co-operate at the third time of asking.

Campbell Cameron, SNP education convener in Argyll and Bute, said he was "delighted" with the quick response, after concerns that a wider inquiry would have led to substantial delays. "I'm quite happy to have a report and I'm quite happy with our processes."

Mr Cameron, under pressure from the party nationally not to close schools, said: "I think we have had around 10 consultations since 1995 and we have not closed 10 schools. That suggests the council is listening."

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