Axe still poised in Borders

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Scottish Borders has restated its pledge to review small primaries where rolls fall to unacceptable levels, despite a significant victory for parents in Moray last week.

Independent councillors there caved in and abandoned pound;70 million worth of rebuilding plans. Critics claimed 21 schools would have disappeared.

A Borders spokeswoman said: "Moray's decision does not change our view on the way we go forward. We will still consult on small school closures."

Six Borders primaries have closed in the past year.

Officials in Moray were this week chewing over yet another rural schools closures carcass and preparing to launch a further study that will examine factors such as rural deprivation, sustainability, economic development and inward migration.

No time-scale has been placed on the review, which will be led by the chief executive's office and not by senior education staff.

Moray insists it will have to tackle spare capacity and points out that 19 of its 46 primaries will be running at less than 60 per cent full within six years. Officials had hoped to axe 12 to 15 primaries over 15 years.

Three primaries closed five years ago despite opposition, but none have gone since then.

Costs will continue to rise without rationalisation, officials say. At Cabrach in Speyside, the five-pupil school currently costs the authority more than pound;17,500 per pupil, against an average of pound;2,500.

A previous attempt at group management of rural primaries also floundered because of community opposition.

Fresh from their bruising encounter on primaries, education officials can now expect a roughing up by Elgin parents over plans to merge the town's two secondaries in a new building. A consultation is expected shortly.

Meanwhile in Angus, where campaigners are opposing rural closures, the authority asserts that primary rolls should not fall below 30 unless schools are in remote communities.

In a revised school estates strategy, the council warns that single-teacher schools place "exceptionally high" expectations on headteachers which in turn exacerbates difficulties in filling posts. Fewer candidates will come forward if a school is already reduced to a single member of staff or the roll is plummeting.

It is "not unreasonable", the authority says, that an ideal minimum for a primary should be around 30 pupils. Eight schools continue to run at or around the 25 mark, while four are classed as remote and are able to continue with smaller numbers.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ideal maximum for a primary should be no more than 400 pupils. Angus favours two-stream rather than three-stream classes per year group.

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, last month came under pressure from the newly formed Rural Schools Network to introduce firmer guidance on small schools, including a presumption against closure. The network says that 68 rural primaries are under threat. MSPs have now asked Mr Peacock how the guidance he has issued is being implemented and monitored.

Mr Peacock has repeatedly declined the invitation to intervene in closures and rejected pleas to introduce a "presumption against closure". Brian Wilson, Labour's former education minister, and Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Conservative education spokesman, are pressing for a firmer commitment.

Mr Wilson believed he had introduced hurdles against closures when he was minister in the late 1990s but blames Scottish Executive officials for thwarting his intentions.

* Mothballing unviable rural primaries works, Andy Anderson, Highland's education convener, said this week as the three-pupil Altnaharra primary in Sutherland reopened. Two younger children are in the nursery.

The school was mothballed in October 2002 after the roll fell to one. It will be managed by the head of Lairg primary, who will supervise a full-time teacher and nursery auxiliary.

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