To close, or not to close a school?

30th July 2004 at 01:00
School closures, like the poor, are destined always to be with us. Or at least controversies about them are ever present. And, as the Interskola conference reminded us (page four), the issues are not confined to this country. The annual gathering of educators with a special interest in rural education could not have come at a more opportune time for Scotland this year, as we await the deliberations of the Education Minister on his school closure guidelines.

The issues are particularly sensitive for Peter Peacock. He has form, as they say, since he used to lead the Highland local authority which, like others presiding over huge swathes of sparsely populated areas, was no slouch at school clearances. Like others also, it did not always display a sure touch when it came to handling the inevitable fallout. Perhaps that is inevitable too.

Mr Peacock is right to insist that, whatever form the new guidelines take, closure plans should be based on a clear analysis of all the factors (page one). That is easier said than done. He will, for example, have to tell his officials how they are to reconcile the existing "test of proportionate advantage" in tipping the scales for or against closures with the requirement on local councils to demonstrate best value for services, providing efficient as well as adequate education.

The minister will be sure of one thing: he does not wish to get sucked into closure controversies on specific schools more than his office already is.

Mr Peacock's Easter trip to New Zealand convinced him, if he needed convincing, that the odium which periodically lands on the head of his counterpart there, where the minister of the day acts as the final arbiter, is something he can well do without.

Happily for Highland's former convener, Mr Peacock can look to his old stamping ground for inspiration. The council has taken an imaginative approach, mothballing near empty schools for a couple of years and effectively challenging communities to fill them. It is seen to be clear and fair, and it tests the rhetoric that a school is indeed "at the heart of its community".

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