The future of rural schools the length and breadth of Scotland looks more secure after the publication today of a landmark report that calls for an end to inconsistency, misinformation and lack of openness around proposed closures.
The long-awaited recommendations would make it far harder to close small and remote schools, with the report demanding that local authorities and the Scottish government actively seek ways to keep rural communities alive.
The Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education - established by the Scottish government and local authorities body Cosla in 2011 - addresses several concerns about the handling of past closure proposals.
There have been frequent complaints that the educational impact has been played down, with the commission calling for new guidance to improve "educational benefit statements". There is also a "strong need" for research to evaluate the impact of closures on children and communities, which the government should drive.
The report also reiterates that, in light of a recent legal ruling on proposals to shut schools in the Western Isles, the government should consider the educational effects of closing a school when it "calls in" a council proposal. It should also provide "more clarity and transparency" around call-ins.
In any closure proposal, the local authority should include keeping the school open as an option. If a plan to shut a school fails, it should not be threatened with closure for at least five years, except where there has been "significant relevant change" to the situation.
"Innovative solutions" are needed to support families and "enhance the viability of rural communities", it says.
"It was clear that education should not be looked at in isolation," said Sheriff David Sutherland, the commission chairman. "Sustainable rural communities depend on a range of services including schools, but also jobs and housing, and that is why our report emphasises the need to focus on rural regeneration.
"Scottish rural schools are and can deliver to the highest levels. We were pleased to find that there was no barrier to rural schools delivering an excellent education or achieving to the fullest extent of Curriculum for Excellence."
The commission calls for "transparent, accurate and consistent financial information" and "clear guidance and a template" on how to produce this.
Legislation is partly blamed for inadequate public consultation, but the commission notes that many local authorities do reach high standards of consultation.
The commission seeks "a new, clearer understanding of the presumption against closure" in government guidance to "reduce conflict and provide clarity and protection for communities and local authorities".
But Sandy Longmuir, chairman of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, speaking before he had seen the report, said he still had fears for the future. "There may be ongoing work behind the scenes to undermine the recommendations," he said.
Mr Longmuir said he was concerned that Cosla was "working to drastically reduce the number of rural schools through reclassification and removal of the right to call in".
Both the Scottish government and Cosla said they would examine the recommendations before issuing full responses.
THE KEY RECOMMENDATIONS
- Consultation should be underpinned by stronger government guidance.
- "Educational benefit statements" must improve and be an important part of closure proposals.
- Proposals should not be removed from relevant financial issues.
- Transparent, accurate information should underpin any financial argument.
- Ministers should continue to have power to call in councils' closure proposals, and should base decisions on a case's merits, not merely compliance with legal process. They should have an additional option of remitting decisions back to local authorities, to be taken again.
- Childcare outside school hours and pre-school provision are important in rural areas. Innovative solutions would see integrated services provided through rural schools.
Photo credit: Alamy
Original headline: Landmark report brings safeguard for rural schools