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'Satellite' sites to cut primary costs

The Educational Institute of Scotland is continuing to reserve its position on the management of small primaries as South Ayrshire becomes the latest council to consider combining three schools under one management as an alternative to closure.

The Labour group has already given its approval in principle after rejecting the closure of Minishant and Fisherton primaries and suggesting they be established as "satellites" of Gardenrose primary in Maybole. If the full council confirms the move, the arrangement would be reviewed in a year.

Scottish Borders has taken a similar step to bring Broughton and Newlands primaries under the one head. Both councils will consider extending the policy if the pilots prove successful.

But Ken Wimbor, assistant EIS secretary, says the Borders scheme, which keeps both schools open, appeared to infringe the legislative requirement that a headteacher must be appointed to every primary and secondary school. South Ayrshire's proposal envisages that the three schools would operate as one establishment with a base in each community.

"I am not saying our members in South Ayrshire are happy with the development," Mr Wimbor said. "But the proposal there appears to be more legally watertight than the Borders decision." John Christie, director of education in Scottish Borders, says the council has sought legal advice and believes its move complies with the legislation.

South Ayrshire and Borders are attempting to square the circle of parental pressure to retain small rural primaries with officials' well-known reservations about the quality of education in these schools. Six councils - Western Isles, Highland, Stirling, Angus, Perth and Kinross, and Dumfries and Galloway - are currently in the throes of trying to close primaries in the teeth of parental opposition.

The Scottish School Board Association has now entered the fray, arguing that the money saved is minimal compared to the effects on rural communities. Officials tend to insist, however, that closure plans are influenced more by educational considerations than finance.

Ann Hill, the association's chief executive, said removal of a school had a profound effect on communities. "Take away one and you take away the other, " Mrs Hill said.

In his report to South Ayrshire Labour group, Mike McCabe, the director of educational services, acknowledges that the financial and educational factors which argue against small primaries have to be balanced against the importance of the local school to its community.

But, Mr McCabe said, the problems facing heads with a heavy teaching as well as administrative load in small primaries, where they may be the sole teacher, have to be addressed.

The difficulty of attracting experienced staff to headships in such schools was also an issue, he added, with the result that "untested" senior teachers are often successful in applying for jobs.

South Ayrshire's report suggests that small primaries could survive, and the isolation of both teachers and pupils overcome, if they were linked to a larger school in an "electronic campus". Video-conferencing and other benefits of new technology would provide children and staff with the stimulus they lack in an isolated setting.

The council believes such an approach would secure the future of local schools which would benefit "from more experienced management by a headteacher who is not class-committed".

But Mr Wimbor says the notion that the headteacher will deal with all management issues in the single campus may not work out in practice. "Parents will go to the person in charge in the nearest school and he or she will become the de facto headteacher," he said.

Meanwhile Ken Macleod, director of education in Dumfries and Galloway, has issued a circular explaining that the education committee's decision to hold consultations on the possible closure of six primaries has had to be put on hold after 18 councillors called for the matter to be referred to the full council which meets next Tuesday.

Mr Macleod apologised for the "continued uncertainty" surrounding the schools, which have been under the prospect of the cosh since last summer. He suggested the delay was because councillors take the matter "extremely seriously".

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