Rural school closures will in future be a decision of last resort, if proposals unveiled last week by the Education Secretary are backed in parliament.
Fiona Hyslop is likely to face calls for extra cash from councils, if they are forced to keep underutilised or outdated schools open. Parents in city schools are also likely to seek the same protection as their country cousins.
Ms Hyslop has had to concede, however, that any bill which emerges from the consultation on "safeguarding our rural schools" will not include a legislative presumption against closure, because such a term could be misinterpreted and would have to be referred to court.
Instead, the Scottish Government proposes the establishment of a "robust process of consideration and decision-making" which achieves the same effect. The proposals aim to strengthen the consultation process for all schools, so that a council would have to:
- publish a consultation paper, including an educational benefit statement about the proposals;
- consult for at least six weeks during term time;
- seek the independent view of HMIE;
- hold a public meeting on its proposals;
- publish a report of what people said during the consultation (including HMIE's views), and how the council has responded.
In the case of rural schools, councils would have to consider:
- alternatives to closing a rural school;
- the impact on the community of closing a rural school;
- the impact of closing a rural school on community use;
- the impact of new travel patterns on pupils, others, and on the environment if a rural school closes.
Ms Hyslop said: "We are frontloading the process to ensure that the heartache is taken out of it for so many."
Future consultations on closure would have to be more open and transparent, and decisions would no longer be taken behind closed doors, she promised. The new requirement on a council to produce an educational benefit statement was a key difference from the current situation, she said.
The consultation document was launched at Sorn Primary in East Ayrshire, a 71-pupil school which was recently reprieved from the threat of closure along with three other primaries. There are an estimated 1,000 schools in rural Scotland: 41 per cent of primaries and 23 per cent of secondaries are in rural areas.
Cathy Jamieson, Labour MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, who supported local campaigns to keep Sorn and other schools open, welcomed any changes which made the process more transparent and improved consultation with parents. Nevertheless, there would be a financial cost attached to the Government's protection of rural schools, she warned.
Murdo Fraser, the Conservative education spokesman, said the Government's proposals had a substantial overlap with his own proposed Member's Bill which creates a presumption against rural school closures.
Ms Hyslop has ruled out Mr Fraser's proposal for the creation of a "rural schools fund", to which schools or the community could apply directly, or the creation of a specific grant. Such moves would go against the principles of the new concordat between local and national government, ministers insist.
Rhona Brankin, Labour's shadow education secretary, commented: "This consultation is happening against SNP funding allocations for education which are the worst in Scotland's history. We have the SNP in Holyrood talking up rural schools, but SNP councils closing them across the country."
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said: "To me, the consultation document represents good practice in terms of how you consult about school reorganisation and school closures."
A crucial issue, however, would be which closure proposals ended up being referred to the minister under the Government's proposals. In Mr Stodter's view, communities served by a city school threatened with closure should have the same rights of consultation as a rural school.
Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, welcomed plans to improve the consultation process but added: "It is important not to romanticise rural schools. While there are many that do an outstanding job, there are some that let their pupils down and many of the phone calls that we receive are to do with problems that can arise as a result.
"For example, while composite classes do not have an adverse effect, a youngster can have a very poor educational experience if heshe has a teacher with whom heshe does not relate well, but then has to have that teacher for three or four years."
Fiona Hyslop visits Sorn Primary, which was recently reprieved by East Ayrshire Council from the threat of closure, following local opposition, along with three other rural schools.
Sorn has four composite classes, but its roll can fluctuate wildly. A few years ago, it had 96 pupils; in a few years' time, its roll is likely to drop to 45. It currently has 71 pupils, 35 of whom are on placing requests.
Accommodation is a big issue, headteacher Mags Houston says. The school's official capacity is 92, but it can only provide PE and school meals by having access to the village hall next door. There is no staffroom for teachers, the library is effectively a corner in the corridor, and the toilet facilities are not good enough.
Ms Houston continues: "The buildings are not fit for purpose. It was built in 1850 as a one-teacher school, which it isn't any more. That said, all of our kids are happy."
Graham Short, director of education and social services in East Ayrshire, said a paper would be going to the council with proposals for making improvements to the school. But any changes would have to be approved by Historic Scotland because of its conservation status. "Rather than changing the funding formula, what has to be recognised is that, if the policy is to keep rural schools open, overall funding for education has to recognise that."
Photograph: Chris Watt.