Error in closure proposals

26th April 2013 at 01:00

I write with regard to the recent report of the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education (CDRE).

At the parliamentary announcement of the inception of the commission, the cabinet secretary gave as a primary reason for its existence the fact that the current legislation governing rural school closures was defective. Section 5 of the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 deals with errors in proposal papers and makes provision for their correction. The act currently allows the local authority to be the sole arbiter of whether or not an error exists. Several high-profile cases have occurred in which serious and blatant errors in the provision of information were simply denied by the local authority, the loophole in the act seemingly leaving ministers powerless to act.

The commission has not recommended any change to the legislation and has said that revised guidance is all that is required to address the failings of the act in this regard. This is all the more strange when you consider that the commission itself was the victim of the same scenario that has plagued so many consultations.

Towards the end of the commission, Western Isles and Scottish Borders councils supplied "average cost per pupil" tables to the commission. When we were shown the data we recognised that Scottish Borders figures were in line with work we had done elsewhere but that Western Isles figures were worthy of checking. The conclusions drawn about the disparity between the councils were most certainly wrong.

Freedom of Information requests revealed that the Western Isles' figures were riddled with errors, such as seven missing teachers and figures on cleaning, maintenance and janitorial costs for a number of schools. The council had identified several of the errors themselves by the time it had replied to the FoI request, but had not thought it necessary to inform the commission prior to signing off on its report.

After prompting by the commission's secretariat, the council admitted the errors privately to the commission but in line with what we have seen elsewhere went to some lengths to avoid the use of the words "errors" or "anomalies" in the commission report or in documents on its website. It even insisted on the right to censor our own document on the commission website to remove the word "errors". Typically, the commission acquiesced to the demands of the council against all the verifiable facts.

In the face of such behaviour, it is questionable if changes to guidance will be sufficient.

Sandy Longmuir, Scottish Rural Schools Network.

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