Argyll's beleaguered education bosses have been given fresh ammunition by the Accounts Commission, the local government watchdog, to press on with highly contentious school closures, writes David Henderson.
The Independently-run Argyll and Bute council has already backed away from several closures and was yesterday again reconsidering its options. But the Accounts Commission's latest analysis of school rolls, published today embarrassingly places the council at the foot of the Scottish league table for occupancy levels in primaries.
Figures for 1996-97 show nearly one-third of Argyll primaries were over 60 per cent empty, twice the level of the next nearest council, Glasgow. Argyll has almost 5,000 surplus primary places.
Each Argyll school lost funds after pound;61,000 was trimmed from devolved budgets once Glassary primary was saved, while retaining Drumlemble primary cost pound;50,000 in staffing. Only four schools have closed, while four have been reprieved.
The commission's report will intensify pressure to close more schools around Scotland, although Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, has muddied the waters by initiating a Scottish Office review of closure guidelines. He maintains closures should be primarily for educational reasons and not purely financially driven.
Parents in rural areas have seized the minister's comments to stall closures. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Nationalists have called for a halt to closures.
The commission praises local authorities for cutting places and closing schools since its last tally four years ago. According to 1996-97 statistics, one third of Scottish primaries and one-fifth of secondaries were only up to 40 per cent full. Bob Black, controller of audit, commented: "Spare capacity in schools continues to be an issue because some of the former councils were slow to address this very sensitive issue."