Can Labour squeeze the empty desks?

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
Councils need the new minister's help to implement school closures. Neil Munro reports

Directors of education have been spending a great deal of the past year wasting their time. From Shetland to Dumfriesshire, they have prepared school closure plans only for councillors to throw them out. The ultimate in preservation of the status quo was the decision by Argyll and Bute to retain the primary on the island of Kerrera, off Oban, although it will have no pupils at all next session.

Even the transfer of one pupil is sufficient to bring down a community's wrath, as Orkney found during its attempt, ultimately successful, to close the island primary on Graemsay and save pound;55,000 a year by sending the sole nine-year-old boy over the sea to Stromness.

Meanwhile Argyll councillors are continuing to plough their way through the primary stock in an effort to save pound;341,000. So far the council has voted to close just three, Ardentinny, Dalavich and St John's Episcopal in Oban (on the casting vote of the council convener). Final decisions on the first two rest with the Secretary of State on distance grounds and the third will be referred for denominational reasons. Another three schools are likely to be reviewed next session.

Last week Newton and Portnahaven primaries on Islay were reprieved following a timely letter to Brian Wilson, the Education Minister with roots on the island, from Ray Michie, Argyll's Liberal Democrat MP. It was one of the first letters to cross the new minister's desk. Mr Wilson registered his concern and the council obligingly complied a fortnight ago.

Another Herculean island effort, which bit the dust more spectacularly, has been the Western Isles programme to close 22 primary schools over eight years. More than half the council's village primaries would have been replaced by "area" schools. Neil Galbraith, the director of education, said school rolls had "collapsed rather than fallen", with a drop of 32 per cent in the primary sector over 20 years. His warning to councillors could not have been more stark: "The present situation cannot continue for much longer as the council will simply run out of sufficient resources to maintain all of its schools."

Education officials and councillors face particular problems in rural areas where there is a clear inconsistency between closing country schools for educational or financial reasons and overall council policies of promoting "sustainability" in rural areas. This conundrum persuaded Dumfries and Galloway to sidestep the closure of five primaries in March.

Councillors took the classic route of referring the matter to a subcommittee whose 12 members have reached a key decision that they should "be formed into a working group to enable more detailed discussions to take place".

The most protracted tussle over closures, however, is in Shetland where the council hired outside consultants and then rejected virtually all their recommendations. The experts advised the closure of three secondary departments and three primaries. Haroldswick primary, Britain's most northerly school, is the only clear victim so far because parents have consented to its closure. Jim Halcrow, Shetland's director, complained that he had been left to rewrite the consultants' report after councillors blocked the only items offering real potential for savings, closures.

The potential for savings is often more apparent than real. The major cost is staff who are simply redeployed elsewhere, additional transport can erode any savings and the real impact on the budget is in the year after closure. Edinburgh's ruling Labour group, having considered axeing eight primaries last year, concluded that the political hassle was not worth the financial candle.

The political hassle is certainly considerable, as Glasgow's convolutions last year amply demonstrated. A plan to close 16 primaries and five secondaries went through the sieve of Labour's ruling executive and full council group to emerge as five primaries. Other closures were rejected or held up by opt-out ballots. The previous government eventually turned down opt-out applications from three primaries, which will close in June.

The Secretary of State has now ruled against John Bosco Secondary and it, too, will close. Some 3,600 surplus places will go. But that will leave 29,000 empty primary desks and 20,600 in secondary, 35 per cent and 39 per cent respectively.

If councillors were to bite the bullet, leaving both primary and secondary sectors with a modest 20 per cent surplus, which would take out another 18,000 places, they would save pound;10 million. Shutting nine schools will achieve a mere full-year saving of pound;1.4 million from April 1998, more than two years after the process began.

It is small wonder that politicians see little point in trying, as Stirling proved once again two weeks ago. Five primaries in West Stirlingshire and Dunblane were put under the microscope, officials recommended that three could close, but the committee decided that only the three-pupil Inversnaid primary on the borders of Loch Lomond should be subject to public consultation. The fact that Stirling had just elected a new Labour MP was not forgotten by the leadership of the Labour-run council.

With Angus and West Lothian also embroiled, councils are a long way from convincing parents that "we must invest in education not empty buildings", the distinction made last week by Val MacIver, education chairman in Highland, bruised by one opted-out school and four opt-out ballots.

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