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Parents seize school to thwart closure

Protesters who have occupied St Paul's Roman Catholic primary in Hurlford near Kilmarnock have vowed to continue their fight until East Ayrshire Council agrees to keep the school open. About 70 residents met on Tuesday evening behind closed doors and expressed support.

Alyson King, who speaks for the group, said: "The feeling is that people are 100 per cent behind us. We have got the support of the local community. " The campaign has been buoyed by a recent meeting with Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, who gave an undertaking to look into the case. The Bishop of Galloway has said he will refer the matter to the local government ombudsman.

Labour-controlled East Ayrshire maintains that the school's roll has dwindled to levels that warrant closure, and adds that modernisation would be too expensive. Pupils are due to attend St Matthew's, a mile away, when the new session starts.

Ms King vigorously disputes the council's case. "They say the roll is 122. That is wrong, it is 100. On the day they came there were 81 pupils present, " she said. "Maggie Thatcher herself passed the legislation saying that borderline cases of 80 per cent capacity have to be referred for consultation. "

Ms King says that the opening of a new prison nearby will create employment opportunities and thus add to the number of pupils.

She is also angry about the length of notice the council gave and feels there was an element of subterfuge. "After the consultation period began you had two weeks' holiday for Easter, and there were three days when the council offices were shut. This gave us less than the minimum period required."

Campaigners cite the number of special needs pupils attending St Paul's. Carol King, whose son Richard is among them, says: "There is no point in sending him to another school. He got a brilliant report card here, and to get to the school they are wanting to send him to would take eight buses."

Alyson King argues that the council has wrongly assessed at Pounds 200, 000 the amount that needs to be spent on the school. Pointing to a nearby toilet she says: "We got a survey done. We got a man to look at every piece of brickwork, every piece of timber, windows, doors, everything. He estimated that the school can meet the criteria set by East Ayrshire at a cost of Pounds 71,200."

Davie Fulton, a Labour councillor, defends the closure decision and maintains that other factors are guiding the protest. "It is a natural reaction to want to save the local primary, but I think the whole thing has been hijacked by local SNP activists," Mr Fulton said. "I have fought for Hurlford all my life and I think this is unfortunate."

But Alex Neill, prospective SNP parliamentary candidate for the area, who was at the meeting, said: "This is not a party political issue. What we have is a good school. The council has acted in a heavy-handed manner. It is clear that the six-week consultation period is not enough."

One of the women occupying the school in shifts said: "They think we are just a bunch of stupid housewives. But we have got our facts and figures right. Our motto is 'we shall not be moved'."

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