Fight to save rural schools

18th January 2013 at 00:00

The work of the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education was covered by TESS last week. While I understand from colleagues that no decision is yet cast in stone, there is a specific remit with which the commission was charged that is causing some anxiety among interested parties.

On 9 June 2011, the Michael Russell addressed the chamber of the Scottish Parliament regarding the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010, where he described elements of the legislation as "defective". Much of the confusion and controversy around the act was what should happen when false information had been supplied during a consultation exercise, and what right ministers had to overturn decisions where it could be established that false information had been used to justify the closure of a school.

This was not a new phenomenon and, during the bill stages of the act, proven case study examples had been supplied to Parliament of some extreme cases. The financial arguments used in the attempted closure of Channelkirk Primary in Scottish Borders had been wildly in error and simplistic beyond belief. At Roy Bridge Primary in Highland, columns of figures had been added up incorrectly and the stated position on local government finance was erroneous. At Eassie in Angus, the condition of the school building was downgraded to "poor", days before the consultation started. This step was against national guidance and under protestation from the surveyor whose gradings had been altered.

The evidence was incontrovertible; the act had to have a section that allowed inaccurate information to be addressed and if this did not work during the consultation period, there had to be an appeals procedure that would allow for natural justice where it had been denied by the process.

The very first rural school to come under the scrutiny of the act, Crossroads in East Ayrshire, was let down badly by the challenge to information and the appeal to ministers. This set the tone for the act, and the subsequent repeated failings around these two sections were in large part responsible for the setting up of the commission.

It is disappointing that Cosla's internal documents have revealed that the Cosla education executive and the leaders' group have decided to seek the removal of ministerial call-in and for it not to be replaced with any alternative appeals process. It would appear from the documents that, as joint owners of the commission, they are to get their way. Not only will there not be any strengthening of an appeals procedure but any future appeal to ministers will only be on the process and not on the merits of any case made by the appellants.

What do Cosla members have to fear from the scrutiny afforded by a low-cost, accessible appeals procedure if they are following the legislation and supplying accurate information? Community members at Channelkirk, Roy Bridge, Eassie, Crossroads can answer that.

Sandy Longmuir, chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network.

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