MSPs drawn deeper into school closures

THE Parliament's education committee continued to tread warily in its dealings with local authorities over school closures this week, although differences of emphasis were evident among MSPs.

Mary Mulligan, the committee's convener, repeated its official view that the report prepared by Cathy Peattie, a Labour member, which rapped Argyll and Bute for "flawed" consultation procedures in attempting to close six primaries, did not amount to telling the council what to do. But the additional parliamentary avenue of protest for parents will now be a powerful new factor.

Although some Argyll councillors were privately unhappy with what they saw as "interference" from Edinburgh, they decided last Wednesday not to close the schools "meantime". This may, however, turn out to be just a stay of execution.

The crucial factor is whether Argyll can persuade the Executive to award it the special islands needs allowance given to the western and northern isles. Argyll estimates its islands add pound;4.5 million to costs which is not covered by Government grant.

But any additional cash for Argyll will be used to meet all council costs, not just spending shortfalls in education. There will also be an outcry if the allowance is extended at the expense of the pound;24 million awarded to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

The scheme is currently under review and MSPs on the education committee agreed to a suggestion from Nicola Surgeon, the SNP's education spokesperson, that it pass on concerns to the parliamentary finance and local government committees that Argyll's treatment was putting the future of rural schools at risk.

But there remains sensitivity on the education committee about the Parliament's role in relation to school closures. Ms Peattie, who acted following a petition to the Parliament on behalf of Toward primary school board, made it clear her criticisms were confined to the consultation process.

Her report suggested that Argyll and Bute officials had presented inaccurate information to parents and misinterpreted guidance from the Accounts Commission.

Lewis McDonald, another Labour member of the committee, was concerned that its views were used by Argyll and Bute to avoid taking a decision on school provision - which was its responsibility "full stop". Mr McDonald said: "We mustn't act as a shadow education committee for Argyll and Bute."

But Karen Gillon, the education committee's vice-convener, strongly condemned the council's failure to take account of the criticisms which had been levelled at its consultation process.

The committee now wants the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to draw up a national code of practice on school closures. MSPs also agreed to press Audit Scotland to review the former Accounts Commission's guidance on managing surplus school places, which is now five years old.

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