Call to arms on rural closures
A hundred delegates from a range of overseas countries focused on education provision in sparsely populated areas, including higher education where the project to establish a university in the Highlands and Islands was hailed by one participant as "the democratisation of education".
The call to arms on rural schools came from Ingrid Sorlin, an educator from Karlstad in Sweden, who said local communities had to be prepared to fight to save rural education.
Ms Sorlin, who chaired last year's conference, told The TES Scotland: "We have a lot of sparsely populated areas in Sweden as is the case in the Highlands. We also face problems over small schools which are threatened with closure. It is more difficult now when we don't have the same amount of money as we used to and more small schools are threatened. If you take a school out of the community, you take the heart out of the community."
She added: "Parents' opinion has a lot of influence with politicians and it is up to each community to decide how many schools it can cope with and how many schools should close. It should not be the Government which decides how many schools we should have."
Ms Sorlin said smaller schools are better for smaller children. "I would advise parents who face school closure to fight. If they fight and try to take over the school themselves, if that is realistic, the politicians will listen. If you work hard with politicians, you will win."
The conference chairman, Donald MacDonald, headteacher of Newtonmore primary, agreed. "If you look at the Norwegian models for rural schools, they have kept open smaller schools when there was pressure to close them.
"They cluster them and create a situation where schools can work together to provide a quality curriculum experience for the children. Rural schools cost money, but delegates saw Ardnamurchan High School in Strontian as . .
. an example of how public private partnerships (PPPs) can be used to provide new schools.
"That school cost pound;6.8 million and it shows that, where there is a political will, the money can be found and that the development is sustainable and valuable."
Alwyn Evans, a former chief adviser with local authorities in rural Wales who is now an educational consultant, said that shutting rural schools was not a simple matter - social, linguistic and cultural issues had to be considered.
"There are economic pressures, but let no one say that rural schools are uneconomic," Mr Evans said. "They are more expensive, but all places in rural areas are more expensive than town areas. Does that mean the countryside is to be closed down?
"One should look at local circumstances and what is right for a particular area. One size does not fit all. It may well be that in some areas, schools will close - but we know that, wherever they close, they never reopen."
Mr Evans suggested alternatives should be attempted, such as twinning schools or forming a federation. "It may not be cheaper but it may be more educationally desirable," he said. "In some cases, a new building to replace several older schools could reinforce language development. In other cases, it could deal a fatal blow to language retention in that area.
Local circumstances must be considered in each case."