School inspectors have been forced by MSPs to defend their decision not to support the closure of small S1-2 secondaries unique to the Western Isles, despite having earlier praised the council for beginning to rationalise its school estate.
Labour MSP Ken Macintosh grilled HMIE chief inspector Annette Bruton during the parliamentary education committee's inquiry into the Government's bill aimed at safeguarding rural schools from closure.
The council had planned to move pupils from Shawbost and Lionel schools on Lewis to a refurbished Nicolson Institute, the island's only all-through secondary.
The plans, however, had to be referred to the Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, because they involved a move of more than 10 miles. She rejected the council's plans in February, following advice from HMIE that "no educational benefit" would be derived from closing the two schools.
Ms Bruton told the committee that when inspectors investigated on Ms Hyslop's behalf, they found there were no plans and no completion date for the refurbished Nicolson Institute. Inspectors could, therefore, see no educational advantage in pupils moving to the school, she said. "If new plans were available and we could see the building, we would want to review that decision."
The Educational Institute of Scotland, in its evidence on the bill, told MSPs it made no sense to have HMIE involved at two stages of the closure process - writing an educational benefit report (as proposed in the bill) and then advising ministers in the event of any proposed closure being referred to them.
Ken Wimbor, assistant EIS secretary, said: "How are ministers going to be able to take advice if HMIE has already pinned its colours strongly to the mast in the educational benefit report?"
The union also raised concerns that, because HMIE was an executive agency of the Government, its involvement in closure decisions could lead to a "perceived conflict of interest".
However, in her evidence to the committee last week, Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop said she did not envisage HMIE having a role in the "call in" process. "HMIE would have a role only if I had queries about the content of the original report and sought clarification," she said.
Ms Hyslop also defended the Government's decision to "effectively create a presumption against closure" for just rural schools, after SNP MSP Kenny Gibson asked if there was any evidence that school closure impacted more on rural areas, than deprived areas.
"I will not apologise for the differentiation that has been made," Ms Hyslop said. "We want to improve the process for everyone, but not every case should be handled in the same way. Rural communities are affected by particular transport issues that are not the same as the safety issues that affect urban schools."