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Minister puts spoke into school closures

Schools in Argyll are bracing themselves for grim tidings from their education department bosses following the council's decision to back down on school closures. One school could lose as much as pound;12,000.

Within days of the Education Minister, Brian Wilson's injunction to local authorities to establish "a credible educational justification" for school closures, Argyll councillors voted to retain Glassary primary near Lochgilphead, which has 26 pupils, and 39-pupil Drumlemble primary near Campbeltown.

Archie Morton, the director of education, has now written to schools warning them of the consequences for their budgets. The closure of the two schools would have saved pound;130,000 of which pound;61,000 has to come from school-based expenditure. It could mean the 1,450-pupil Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, the council's largest school, facing a loss of pound;12,000 with others being forced to make proportionate cuts.

Mr Morton and his fellow directors in the two rural authorities where closure problems are most acute, Highland and Dumfries and Galloway, now want a meeting with Bob Irvine, the head of school organisation and provision at the Scottish Office, to tease out the implications of the Education Minister's remarks.

Mr Wilson urged authorities to apply the test of "proportionate advantage" to any school closure, which means the educational and financial gains must outweigh the negative effects.

But Allan Macaskill, education chairman of the Independent-controlled Argyll and Bute Council, warned that there will be "serious implications" for all its schools as a result of his authority's interpretation of that ministerial steer.

In addition to the school budget cuts, pound;50,000 will have to be shaved off staffing costs and there will be a further 10 per cent reduction in grants to voluntary organisations on top of the 15 per cent already removed in the coming year's budget. The voluntary sector in Argyll is now 40 per cent worse off than it was under the dying days of Strathclyde Region.

Councillor Macaskill drew atention to the irony that the council relies on some of these voluntary groups to deliver the Government's pledge of a nursery place for every four-year-old.

Around a quarter of Argyll's pre-school provision comes from the voluntary sector, some of it in remote areas which the council could not afford to establish - although this week's announcement by Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, on pre-schoolfunding in rural areas will help.

The Argyll experience over closures shows that the Education Minister's intervention has stiffened the backbone of wavering councillors, particularly in areas run by independent groups where there is no clear party political stance.

The result of last week's decisions, which only scraped through the education committee by 12 votes to 11, must now put the rest of Argyll's closures programme in doubt.

The council is currently consulting on the future of 39-pupil Rashfield primary outside Dunoon, and there are proposals to close a number of other schools which is conditional on using pound;440,000 "best value" funding from the Scottish Office. This has to be used on improvements to receiving schools taking in pupils from those that are closed.

The next test for councils' resolve to close schools will come on April 23 when Highland education committee meets to decide on the future of 10 primaries.

While Councillor Macaskill warned of a budgetary "lurch into chaos", Robert Mitchell, chairman of the Drumlemble action group, hoped other communities would take heart from Argyll's decisions. "I think some of Brian Wilson's comments have affected the result," he added.

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