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Let councils have final decision on rural school closures

As the SNP Government announced a Rural Schools Bill this week in its legislative package for the coming year, one of Scotland's most remote education authorities wants final decisions on rural school closures to be removed from Scottish Ministers and devolved to councils.

The Western Isles Council is effectively using one of the Scottish Government's key policies against it. It argues that in the light of the concordat between central and local government, and the single outcome agreements which followed, councils should be allowed to make their own decisions on closures.

"It does not make sense to give local authorities the legal responsibility to deliver an education service and then interfere in the way that responsibility is managed, particularly in light of concordats and single outcome agreements," said Murdo Macleod, the council's director of education.

The authority is wrestling with local opposition to its plans to close seven P1-S2 schools on the grounds that they cannot competently deliver the new Curriculum for Excellence, which treats S1-3 as a single stage. Officials in Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop's department, however, have told the SNP MSP for the Western Isles, Alasdair Allan, that there is nothing to prevent the curriculum reforms from being delivered in the islands' unique S2 schools.

Mr Macleod accused the Government of sidestepping any adverse financial consequences of maintaining schools they cannot afford through its rejection of the concept of a rural schools fund. "It is stated (in the consultation) that authorities in future will have greater autonomy for directing resources to meet particular needs in this area," he said. "This is very misleading. Authorities already have such flexibility. That is why this authority spends substantially above its assessed need for education.

The Western Isles' response to the Government's consultation on rural school closures mirrors that of Moray Council, which is also in conflict with ministerial policy on school closures.

Meanwhile, Falkirk Council has argued against HMIE being involved in proposed closures, a key plank of the Government's plans to reform closure procedures. Falkirk concedes that it makes sense for the inspectorate to be involved in scrutinising the educational benefits of a proposed closure, but says HMIE would add little value to other statutory consultations.

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