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'Let Scots parliament decide'

No Scottish education minister is likely to sanction the closure of any rural school referred to him over the next year, Charles Kennedy, MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West, told the Liberal Democrats' conference in Inverness last weekend.

The impending elections for the Scottish and European parliaments and councils would focus ministers' minds, the former national president said in a special debate on rural school closures.

Mr Kennedy insisted no closures should take place ahead of the Scottish parliament which would decide on education and spending policies. His party was the "honest taxation party" and would tax those who could afford to pay and spend it on education.

Ray Michie, MP for Argyll and Bute, said: "The closures in Argyll cannot be argued on educational grounds. They're doing it because they're in financial constraints. Argyll and Bute has put a hold on two schools but there are still eight more under threat."

She advised councils to ignore the pleadings of the Accounts Commission which is pressing for closures. "Councillors have to have the guts and commitment to stand up for rural schools and argue with the commission," she said. It was not illegal not to close schools.

Delegates backed a call for rural councils to suspend closure programmes until the Scottish Office has carried out further consultations on the criteria for referral to the Secretary of State.

But Joan Mitchell, party leader in Dumfries and Galloway, whose council is consulting on the closure of six primaries, described as unhelpful the stance taken by conference.

"Please don't shoot the people who, in difficult budgetary situations, are trying to provide the best possible educational service, not just for the handful of kids involved in these six schools but for all pupils in a rural authority," she said.

Some of the closures were entirely justified, including two less than full Roman Catholic primaries which stood "cheek by jowl" with non-denominational primaries, Dr Mitchell said.

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