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New moves to guard rural schools against closure

The education Secretary has announced fresh moves to protect rural schools, further restricting the freedom of local authorities to close schools at a time when they are looking for savings.

Michael Russell's new working group has been asked to draw up revised guidance to ensure that local authorities explore fully "all alternatives to rural school closures".

His announcement came as plans by Argyll and Bute Council to close a third of its 80 primary schools went out to public consultation - but only after the council's nine SNP councillors walked out of the ruling SNPIndependent coalition in protest. The proposals were passed narrowly by 19 votes to 17, after the Liberal Democrat group backed them.

Mr Russell was concerned, he said, that some rural communities which face losing their schools felt other proposals they put forward were being ignored or overlooked.

"This new working group will bring together all the key players to draw up robust, workable guidance for local authorities," he said. "Once in place, it will offer further reassurance to communities that the financial constraints facing Scotland do not make school closures inevitable."

The Education Secretary also confirmed that he will comply with civil service advice and not be involved in any ministerial decisions that may be required in relation to school closures in Argyll and Bute.

Mr Russell is seen as having a conflict of interest. Not only does he live in Argyll and is the SNP parliamentary candidate in Argyll and Bute, but his wife, Cathleen, has been affected by the proposals. Until a month ago, she was headteacher of Toward Primary which is slated for merger, and she has been moved to become acting head of nearby Sandbank Primary.

The Education Secretary has the power to call in council closure plans, under new legislation introduced earlier this year by the Scottish Government to protect rural schools. This step is taken when ministers feel there is evidence that public consultation has not been robust enough or where there is doubt over the education benefits of closing a school.

elizabeth.buie@tes.co.uk.

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