Inspections be damned in new closures process

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
A good report is no safety net for some rural schools, if they are in the firing line

Many schools are threatened with closure despite receiving some of the best inspections on record, the Scottish Parliament's education committee has heard.

The Scottish Rural Schools Network also argued that being rated the worst in Scotland could stave off closure, and that plans to shut schools and make savings could, in fact, cost taxpayers.

Chairman Sandy Longmuir told the committee that analysis had revealed "it was almost possible to identify the schools that were threatened with closure by their excellent HMIE reports".

Mr Longmuir was giving evidence to the committee on the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced by Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop to revise and strengthen the statutory consultation process required when education authorities are considering changes to the school estate, particularly closures. A key policy aim of the bill is to safeguard rural schools and communities.

The SSRN chairman pointed to several primaries earmarked for closure - all ultimately saved - including the "best-performing and attaining school in the Borders", Channelkirk Primary, and Eassie Primary in Angus, which had "probably the best HMIE report ever given", before the new inspection process started.

In stark contrast, he cited Tomintoul Primary, in Moray, which was proposed for closure until it received a damning HMIE report in 2006, while Inveravon Primary, although eventually saved, remained on the council's closure list despite having an outstanding report.

"Moray Council's reaction was to remove the school from the closure consultation because it could not possibly close it when it was that bad," Mr Longmuir said. "That shows how perverse the situation is: Inveravon remained in the closure consultation, despite receiving one of the best HMIE reports ever in Moray Council, while the school that received the worst HMIE report ever was removed from it."

Mr Longmuir argued that savings made by closing small rural schools were often "minuscule" - if they existed at all. The network, for example, had persuaded Scottish Borders Council that it would have cost the council money to close Channelkirk Primary, in Oxton.

It also calculated that there would be "no financial benefit" to closing Highland's Roy Bridge Primary, which was reprieved last year, with the council eventually admitting that it had got its sums wrong by around Pounds 2 million.

Mr Longmuir said a call-in process was needed in "rogue circumstances" where a local authority's justification for closure was flawed.

Financial analysis was carried out to show the benefit of shutting the two-pupil Cabrach Primary, in Moray, a closure which had been supported by the network since it could not see the community growing. It found that closure of the school - which the Scottish Government stepped in to save last year - would have increased the budget for every other child in the area by less than Pounds 10 per year.

"We are very much an evidence-based organisation and the paper we supplied on attainment to committee is based entirely on available figures and all the information can easily be checked," Mr Longmuir said. "We are careful in the conclusions that we draw from these figures as we are aware that many factors are at work here, but the point is to refute absolutely the claims that small schools cannot perform at the very highest level."

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