The Scottish Office could become more deeply embroiled in unpopular decisions over school closures if the Secretary of State extends his scrutiny of council proposals.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, announced at the weekend a three-month consultation on whether existing regulations that prescribe categories of closure which require the Secretary of State's consent should be amended. Any changes could be implemented quickly because they can be introduced by regulation and do not require primary legislation.
Speaking at a seminar in Dunoon on school provision in Argyll, Mr Wilson said: "No rural primary school should be closed on solely cost grounds . . . there must also be a credible educational justification for closure."
He called on education authorities to apply "a test of proportionate advantage to any proposed closure of a rural primary school. In other words, do the educational and financial gains deriving from a closure stand up to scrutiny and do they outweigh the negative effects on that rural community and the children and their families?" The genesis of the Scottish Office review is the pressure from the rural lobby over alleged neglect of the countryside. This led Stephen Byers, the Schools Minister in England, to announce that proposals would require approval and ministers would have "a presumption against closure".
The Scottish Office initially kept its distance, pointing out that there were already regulations requiring ministerial consent to closures where the primary school is more than five miles from the nearest alternative and 10 miles in the case of secondaries. Schools that are more than 80 per cent full also require approval.
Mr Wilson confirmed this a fortnight ago when he told a fringe meeting at Labour's Scottish conference that officials had investigated any changes but ruled them out. Any further moves to restrict closures would "infringe the rights of local authorities".
But he also said that schools should only be closed for sound financial reasons. His Dunoon speech was a reformulation of that view or, as he put it, "part of a continuous stream of thought". Pending the outcome of the consultation, he would apply his test of "proportionate advantage" to proposals that come to the Scottish Office under the existing distance criteria.
The education chairman in Argyll and Bute, which had put a number of closures on hold until after the discussion that took place at the weekend seminar, said the council would be pressing on with its rationalisation programme. Allan Macaskill said that without extra funding any decision not to close a school would mean taking savings from other areas such as staffing and buildings.
Mr Macaskill criticised the preoccupation with rural primaries. "You can't just home in on the village aspect of a primary school. Schools in urban areas are important as well. I can also point to schools in my area which were shut and the village did not decline. It is too simplistic to link the two since every circumstance is different."
Argyll has already closed three primaries, all of which had to be referred to the Secretary of State. The education committee was due to meet yesterday to decide on the future of Glassary primary in Mid Argyll and Drumlemble primary in Kintyre.
Consultations are also being held on the future of Rashfield primary near Dunoon, and a further three or four primaries could close under the Government's "best value" regime which has released pound;440,000 to Argyll to help upgrade receiving schools as part of a national pound;15 million programme.
Other councils with closure programmes in rural areas are Highland, Western Isles, Stirling and Dumfries and Galloway.
Most authorities present closure proposals as having educational and financial advantages, but few are as open as Gordon Jeyes, Stirling's director. Its children's committee voted last week to close Kinbuck primary outside Dunblane and Kinlochard primary in the Trossachs.
Mr Jeyes admitted: "The single strongest argument for the closure of Kinbuck primary is financial. The educational case for closure of a school with a roll of 25 pupils is not strong."
But under the current regulations the committee's decision is final since the school is three miles from the nearest alternative, Newton primary in Dunblane.