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Tension mounts over rural closure plans

Unease between the Scottish Government and local authority bosses is growing after a council bowed to pressure from Education Secretary Michael Russell and put school closure plans on hold.

Argyll and Bute Council this week halted moves to shut 11 schools, a fortnight after Mr Russell - also the local MSP - announced a year-long moratorium on closures throughout Scotland.

But the authority insists that it does not support the moratorium, explaining that its decision was based on Mr Russell's description of legislation as "defective".

Council leader Dick Walsh said: "It is not appropriate for the council to continue working under legislation which the Education Secretary himself believes to be flawed and not fit for purpose."

Argyll and Bute Council should be represented on a new commission to examine the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010, Mr Walsh argued, since his authority had the most recent and extensive experience of working with the legislation.

The council's change of plan emerged after Cosla, the local authorities umbrella body, rejected Mr Russell's call for a moratorium until June 2012.

Cosla president Pat Watters praised the Argyll and Bute response: "There is no way this can be described as agreeing to a moratorium; what it does show is the intolerable pressure that can be brought to bear on a local council when a senior cabinet secretary chooses to deal with what should always have been a national discussion, with reference to his own constituency's local council."

Argyll and Bute, which will still close two schools that have no pupils, was in Councillor Watters' view "absolutely right not to continue down a road in which they would be accused of working under legislation which the Education Secretary asserts to be flawed and not fit for purpose".

A Scottish Government spokesman described the Argyll and Bute decision as "a win-win scenario for parents and the council".

He said the proposals had been welcomed by all sides of the Scottish Parliament and endorsed by other local authorities, including East Ayrshire and East Lothian, adding that the Government wanted to be "fully engaged" with Cosla.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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