Rural closures may lead to home learning

David Henderson

PUPILS in far-flung rural communities who rattle around in half-empty, dilapidated classrooms could equally well be educated at home with specialist support, according to a draft code of practice on closures from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

With many rural schools under threat from plummeting rolls, the code suggests the focus could switch to home education, an increasingly popular option for some parents if they can gain access to a wider curriculum through new technology.

Councils are already finding it difficult to recruit teachers in remote rural areas and may back radical options in a limited number of communities. Schools with a handful of pupils could therefore close, leaving pupils to be educated at home "with appropriate support from the council and supplemented by occasional visits to a larger school".

Authorities are considering all options as pressures increase to tighten budgets and adapt schools to the needs of the new century. The code will be presented to Cosla leaders at the end of next month as authorities such as Dumfries and Galloway consider closing up to 40 small schools as part of a pound;70 million refurbishment programme funded through a public private partnership.

The report follows a Holyrood inquiry into school closures in Argyll and Bute, carried out by Cathy Peattie, vice-convener of the education, culture and sport committee, which recommended national guidelines on rural primaries. A broader inquiry into rural schools was carried out by Jamie Stone, a former committee member.

Authorities are likely to press ministers to amend legislation on closures, scrapping the infamous "80 per cent rule" introduced in 1988 at the instigation of Lady Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, to save Paisley Grammar from merger with Merksworth High. In an ironic twist, following the closure of Merksworth in June, pupils will transfer to the grammar in the new session.

Cosla points out: "Since school closure proposals, virtually without exception, affect more than one school, it is not uncommon for a closure proposal to fall into this category, and the result is that many closure decisions do now have to be referred to Scottish ministers."

Authorities flatly dismiss Mrs Peattie's recommendation that cost should not come into the equation on closures. "If such policies determine that rural schools are community assets and learning centres and as such must be retained, then that must be transparently and separately funded. For councils to ignore the financial considerations would be inconsistent with best value principles."

The draft code is not intended to be mandatory, but a checklist of good practice authorities should follow when considering closures and rebuilding schools.

Leader, page 12

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David Henderson

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