A far-away problem that's close to home

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Several Scottish local authorities face challenging situations over small rural primary schools. Moray Council has been forced to abandon a plan to close 21 primaries as part of a cost-saving restructuring plan. Campaigning parents, supported by the Conservative peer Lord Laidlaw, who has strong family ties in the north-east, have secured at least a temporary victory.

The underlying demographic problem remains: many rural schools operate substantially under capacity and the birth rate gives little hope of reversing the decline in numbers.

Two other councils, Borders and Angus, are also trying to address this issue. Borders plans to review small primaries where rolls fall to a level considered unacceptable. In Angus, the authority has proposed a minimum roll of 30, unless schools are deemed "remote". Currently, eight Angus primary schools have around 25 pupils.

Parent and community feeling about this issue should not be underestimated.

Highland Council has just reopened Altnaharra primary school in Sutherland, with a roll of five, following a petition from parents and representations from the Altnaharra estate, which had difficulty in recruiting staff because of the lack of a primary school in the area. The reopening means that children will no longer have to face a 50-mile round trip daily to attend the primary department of Farr High in the north of Sutherland.

There are strong social and psychological arguments for maintaining small rural primary schools. Such schools serve as a focal point, a resource for the whole community, not just children and parents. When a school is closed, something important is lost, which goes beyond the impact on individuals and families. This can be explained in terms of the values a school represents - learning, sharing, supporting, striving, achieving.

These values do not generally figure in the balance sheets that influence the decision-makers.

At a psychological level, a local school offers security and stability to young children. A larger school, many miles away, can be difficult to adjust to and the opportunity to form new friendships outwith school hours is bound to be limited. There may, it is true, be access to a wider range of teacher expertise, and the effective use of information technology can go some way towards extending the curriculum of a one or two-teacher school.

The most powerful arguments in favour of closure are, of course, economic and bureaucratic. In Moray, for example, the average cost per primary pupil is pound;2,500. This compares with a figure of pound;17,500 for a five-pupil school. Faced with the disparity, it is not surprising that local authorities feel they must take some action.

However, the political dimension of all this invites scrutiny. The Scottish Executive claims that it is pursuing a policy designed to sustain rural communities. Reference is frequently made to the importance of economic development, sustainability and inward migration. Yet, on the subject of rural schools, the Executive's position is that it is a matter for local authorities and the Minister for Education declines to intervene.

Understandably, local authorities say that their budgets make it impossible to justify the continuation of those schools which cost well over the average to operate. Indeed, they might be subject to criticism from Audit Scotland if they were to ignore the issue. They are thus caught between economic imperatives, government hand-washing and parent pressure.

Against this background, it is not surprising that a rural schools network has been formed to monitor what is happening in different parts of the country, and to share information about the "consultation" exercises that precede the announcement of closure plans. This latest example of grass-roots democracy should help to keep local and national politicians on their toes.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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