Fiona Hyslop's homily on the demerits of school closures (page 1) is not the first time that an education minister has strayed into this dangerous territory. Indeed, Ms Hyslop's sermon is uncannily similar to one which a Labour predecessor in pre-devolutionary days, Brian Wilson, delivered in 1998. His declaration of Dunoon asked education authorities to apply "a test of proportionate advantage" in making decisions about primary school closures in rural areas. Ms Hyslop wants to see "a presumption against the closure of rural schools." The same civil servants must still be around.
The SNP's stance on the issue could prove costly in financial as well as political terms, particularly if Ms Hyslop's government is right in suggesting that this week's spending announcements by the Chancellor create "an extremely serious position" for the financing of public services, and particularly if the party is still intent on honouring its other generous manifesto pledges on class sizes, student debt, and so on.
Ms Hyslop will need to talk to other interested parties about her plans, not least her colleague John Swinney and the Accounts Commission. If her call (eventually backed by legislation) leads councils to keep virtually all schools open, rural or otherwise, where stands that other political presumption of efficient public services? This will confuse the Accounts Commission which has been vigilant in its pursuit of authorities running half empty schools, defined as those below 60 per cent occupied.
Involvement in closures is a thankless task for any education minister. It was little wonder that Peter Peacock resisted calls for all closure decisions to be referred to him when he was in charge, particularly having visited his New Zealand counterpart and seen the political fall-out. Thank goodness for local authorities, ministers must often muse.