Backlash on rural closures

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Ministers may reissue guidance to local authorities on closing small, rural primaries following a welter of complaints from parents and MSPs in Scottish Borders and Midlothian.

Both authorities, like others across the country, are planning to close schools with falling rolls and dilapidated buildings but are under increasing pressure to think again. A further five primaries in the Borders were this week subject to formal consultations, adding to four in February.

In a parliamentary debate last week, Euan Robson, Deputy Education Minister, and a Borders MSP, conceded that he would re-examine the case for fresh advice on closures.

Mr Robson was replying to Rhona Brankin, the Midlothian Labour MSP, who highlighted the strength of parent opposition to plans to close seven primaries and four nurseries in her constituency.

Ms Brankin pressed Mr Robson to update advice on "the test of proportionate advantage" introduced by Brian Wilson, the former education minister, in 1998. Mr Robson replied: "I have undertaken to consider with her whether guidance should be reissued."

But he again declined to intervene in disputes between authorities and parents' groups and underlined the Scottish Executive view that falling rolls and out of date buildings must be tackled. In 10 years, there would be 75,000 fewer children in schools, he pointed out.

The situation in the Borders, however, has now been muddied by the Scottish Conservatives who are opposed to closures where there is no support from parents and the community. They share power in the authority with the Independents.

David Mundell, the South of Scotland Conservative, told MSPs: "It is already clear in most cases that if the closure of a school does not attract the support of parents and their communities, Conservative councillors on Scottish Borders Council will not support it. I commend them for taking that line, which is also the line I take."

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Tory spokesman on education, said: "We strongly support the presumption against closures. The administration should send out that message."

The lack of guidance to local authorities was criticised by Lord James, who pointed out that 38 rural schools have closed in Scotland since 1998, against three a year in England where ministers had supported small schools.

Later this year, a further seven Borders primaries could be up for closure under a public private partnership (PPP) package that may lead to the emergence of five new schools.

Jeremy Purvis, a Borders Liberal Democrat, re-emphasised the importance of schools to communities. Mr Purvis had recently asked "the 50 or so sixth-form pupils" at Earlston High who are about to leave for university how many would return to the Borders. "Two out of 50 said they would."

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