Closures promise a 'bribe'

6th March 2009 at 00:00

The Scottish Government has been accused of reneging on its election promise to create a presumption against the closure of rural schools.

In its SNP manifesto, the party acknowledged that access to a local school was "particularly important" in rural communities and pledged to "introduce a legislative presumption against closure of rural schools and tighten the regulations for closing all schools".

The Schools (Consultation) Bill, unveiled by Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop this week, places more hurdles in the path of councils planning to close rural schools, even asking them to look at the environmental impact of travel arrangements to an alternative school, but it contains no legal presumption against closure.

Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Margaret Smith described the manifesto promise as an "election bribe to worried parents".

She added: "I am pleased that the SNP has adopted the Liberal Democrats' position of strengthening the best practice guidelines that councils must follow before any schools are closed."

Labour unreservedly welcomed the measures to protect schools.

The watchdog body Consumer Focus Scotland (the successor to the Scottish Consumer Council), while hailing the Bill as "a step forward for parents and pupils", criticised it for failing to extend consultation to 12 weeks, the period for which the Government is obliged to consult.

On a visit to Dalwhinnie Primary in Highland, which has a pupil roll of 10, Ms Hyslop said: "As a result of the Bill, a local authority would have, among other things, to publish and advertise a detailed proposal paper, produce an educational benefits statement, consult for a minimum of six weeks of term time, seek HMIE's view on the educational aspects of the proposal and extend the list of mandatory consultees to include, among others, pupils and teachers."

She acknowledged that the Bill left the consultation and decision-making processes "squarely and rightly" in the hands of authorities.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said he was pleased key concerns raised in the early stages of the Bill had been addressed. School closure required open and transparent consultation with communities, but sometimes councils had to take difficult decisions, he warned. "Local authorities must be supported in ensuring the best use of available resources for the full education benefit of all of the children in the area," he said.

If passed, the Bill's proposals could be in place by next year.

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