A code for closures

27th July 2001 at 01:00
AN unpalatable reality is that plummeting rolls will inevitably jeopardise the future of many primary schools in rural and urban Scotland, with the loss of a whole year group of around 50,000 pupils over the coming decade. Scotland will be hit unevenly and it is therefore timely that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is planning a national code of practice with a special emphasis on rural areas (page five).

Closures still present one of the most contentious public governance issues. Campaigns quickly assume massive importance, fuelled by the local press and stirred by national politicians. Not-in-my-backyard is a common principle that magically can persuade the most committed councillor to sound the full retreat when the pressure is on, especially close to elections. In contrast, some council leaders have already proclaimed a macho "no closures" policy that will sooner or later have to be overturned, however subtly and imaginatively. Financial and educational necessity will force the issue.

The difficulties are recognised. "Whatever the background, the ingredients exist for unhelpful conflict rather than a rational approach if the process is not handled sensitively and in a structured manner," Cosla notes. Quite so.

Politicians and senior officials need bottle if they are to follow through closure schemes, which, in the long run, may be best for communities. Dumfries and Galloway is the latest to stick its neck out, boldly presenting options for up to 40 closures. In line with Cosla's advice, it has consulted widely but does not duck key issues, such as precisely how to organise a technology-supported curriculum in run-down, outdated buildings. And it does not duck the financial questions.

The carrot, of course, is the "something for something" approach, now possible through the public private partnerships. Newly furbished PPP secondaries have proved attractive to parents in Glasgow, even if teachers harbour lingering doubts. Edinburgh is going through a similar process.

Cosla acknowledges that plans can come unstuck even where councils have been open and apparently above board. Sensible discussion can be blocked off. This is an issue that will resurface across the country and dominate the planning agenda over the next 10 years. Creative solutions will be needed, such as home working in remote communities. More such out-of-box thinking is required.

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