Labour won't bail out rural schools
Ministers at the Department for Education and Employment have responded to the growing countryside lobby by promising to review all closures of village schools. However, Mr Wilson told the Socialist Educational Association that any move to restrict closures would "infringe the rights of local authorities".
The Secretary of State already has to approve any closure of a primary which is more than five miles away from the nearest alternative and a secondary which is more than 10 miles. Schools that are 80 per cent full must also be referred.
Primary campaigners in Highland had hoped to win a reprieve for some of the 11 schools targeted in the latest phase of closures.
Mr Wilson admitted officials had investigated changes but ruled them out. Schools should only be closed for sound educational reasons, rather than purely financial ones, he said.
Striking an upbeat message about positive developments in Scottish education, Mr Wilson announced that an extra pound;250,000 from Scottish Office savings would restore funding to the mothballed Newbattle Abbey College in Dalkeith after the Conservatives cut central support in 1989. Newbattle will be able to provide 150 residential places over the next three years for adults who want to return to education and progress to college and university.
A further pound;400,000 is being targeted at reading materials for early intervention and pound;140,000 to buy computer software and hardware for special schools and units.
Defending his record as minister and paying tribute to teachers' work in the classroom, Mr Wilson said policies had developed through consensus. "It has not been edict on high," he stated.
Scottish schools were "not crisis zones" and were not starved of money, although the system could always do with more. "We should never go to the other extreme of undervaluing Scottish education," he cautioned.
In his address to the conference, Mr Wilson criticised SNP-run Perth and Kinross for levying the highest charges for instrumental music tuition. "My own authority, North Ayrshire, provides free music instruction and I wish every authority would do it," he said.
Labour, Mr Wilson said, had delivered universal pre-school education and injected a ring-fenced pound;200 million into schools. "I can tell you that the benefits of that extra money are feeding through into every classroom in Scotland."
David Watt, the Socialist Educational Institute's secretary, backed new models of comprehensive education under a Scottish parliament, a reference to Glasgow's attempts to reform structures in favour of disadvantaged families. In a motion praising the Government's commitment to standards and quality, Mr Watt supported target-setting and efforts to reverse continued underachievement by pupils.