The scottish Government has taken a step closer to creating a legal presumption against the closure of rural schools.
Fiona Hyslop, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, yesterday told councils she expects them to put the best interests of pupils before financial considerations when deciding on school closures. She also wants them to be better at taking pupils' not just parents' views into consideration.
Although the reissued guidance varies little from that issued in 2004 by Peter Peacock, the former education minister, her accompanying letter to directors of education and local authority education conveners sets a very different tone.
Ms Hyslop this summer reprieved two rural schools Glentrool Primary in Dumfries and Galloway, whose roll of nine was set to fall to four, and Lochearnhead Primary in Stirling, with a roll of eight which were facing closure by their councils.
Her letter to councils emphasises the need not simply to look at the current roll of schools, but to consider future demand for places.
"Firstly, population projections for a given community or area can fluctuate quite significantly from year to year and, secondly, your council can sometimes take positive action, or encourage or support the taking of action by others, to influence directly the projections and trends for instance to seek to slow, halt or even reverse the decline in a community's population," she says.
She also reminds councils, in forceful terms, that they must apply the statutory framework, guidance and her own directions equally carefully, whether or not proposed school closures require ministerial consent.
Ms Hyslop stresses the "critical importance" of councils' setting out the educational advantages of a proposed closure. Where cases are in future referred to her for ministerial consent, she plans to call on HMIE to advise her whether the proposed closure would indeed deliver educational advantage.
In the case of Glentrool Primary, HMIE effectively backed the local authority proposal, concluding there was no evidence that enrolling its pupils in the two nearest schools would be to their educational detriment. However, she vetoed the closure over concerns about the way the consultation process had been carried out.
Ms Hyslop warns councils in her letter that they must follow the guidance as a whole rather than selectively. "The consultation process should always be a genuine one, one in which the points and issues raised at public meetings and by those responding in other ways are taken seriously, explored and also answered," she adds.
She also insists that councils must do more to explain how they have reached their final decision: "In a process where transparency and accountability count for so much, it strikes me as essential that those who have participated in the process get some sort of response or reply beyond just the announcement of the final decision."
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, welcomed the fact that no new legislation to create a presumption against rural school closures was planned in the immediate or short-term future.
He added that Ms Hyslop's letter moved in the direction that councils had been expecting as it showed it was "not wise to set out on a school reorganisation in the context of seeking to find money".
He thought most authorities would welcome her guidance, but it would nevertheless place additional constraints upon them.
"They will just have to be more thorough, consultative and strategic in their approach to the provision of schools. In a sense, it is not just about estate planning, it is about something much bigger than that.
"If Scotland really wants its small schools to flourish, that is a big political commitment and requires a shift in thinking. If that is a priority there are implications, including financial ones," he said.
Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said that if the Scottish Government wanted to move in this direction, it would have to fund the policy.
If they did not provide the additional funding needed to keep small schools open, "all the other children in all the other schools in that area get short changed" because council resources were spread more thinly, she said.
She predicted that Ms Hyslop's guidance would make it "practically impossible" for councils to shut schools.
Her fear was that school provision would be "set in aspic" according to the population distribution of 20 years ago, rather than looking at future population trends.