Luss Primary: placed on an 'utterly subjective hit list'

1st April 2011 at 01:00
Frustrated by vague criteria for closure, Luss residents fear for their community

Luss is the archetypal picture-postcard Scottish village. With stone cottages, flowery lanes and views across Loch Lomond, its 102 residents are drowned by 750,000 visitors a year.

Behind the pretty facade is a thriving community. Homes are occupied year round and church services packed. Then there is the 21-pupil school, the biggest, and noisiest, user of the village hall and, with its pantomime and carol service, the driving force of the social calendar.

A yellow estate agent's sign juts out beside a four-bedroom house, on the market for six months. With doubt lingering over the school, several families have decided against a move to Luss. If the school disappears, residents fear the village will be reduced to servicing holidaymakers.

The residents - who number 364 across the wider parish - were shocked in October when Luss Primary appeared in the original list of 26 Argyll and Bute primaries earmarked for closure. When it made the second, pared-down list of 12 in January, they could not work out why. The school was in good condition and providing an education praised by national bodies. Smaller more-expensive-to-run primaries had come off the list. Many had thought the distance to the alternative school, nine miles away in Helensburgh, would clinch survival.

The initial list of 26 was seen as a desperate attempt to save money in any way possible, at a time when Argyll and Bute Council was bemoaning the worst budget settlement in Scotland.

Council education spokesperson Ellen Morton, who is overseeing the new proposals, insists her methods are more "holistic". Although she hopes for savings of pound;500,000 a year, she tells TESS: "I haven't allowed the savings to feature too much in my thought process."

Mrs Morton has continually refused to be pinned down on criteria, to campaigners' frustration, arguing that to aim for certain journey times, pupil rolls or savings would ensure a "box-ticking mechanistic exercise". As she puts it: "The criteria will be the same across the board, but the significance of criteria will change from school to school."

What Mrs Morton portrays as open-mindedness, campaigners see as lack of guidance with which to build cases for keeping schools. The 45-minute limit for school journeys in the previous proposals, for example, has been ditched. Luss campaigners calculated that, by the time everyone had been picked up, the bus journey to Helensburgh, would take 53 minutes.

Opponents to the closures, such as Education Secretary Michael Russell, speaking as a Holyrood parliamentary candidate for Argyll and Bute, have suggested the 12 schools are on an "utterly subjective, personal hit list". In a statement intended to clarify the situation last month, Mrs Morton said she would take into account guidelines from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy on asset management and capital planning in local authorities. Its criteria include occupancy levels, cost per pupil, buildings' condition and energy use per pupil.

Parents across Argyll and Bute are concerned that educational excellence is not being considered.

Sandy Longmuir, chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, recalls HMIE evidence to the Scottish Parliament last year, showing that small rural schools were more likely to receive top inspections.

Last month, Luss Primary was highlighted by Learning and Teaching Scotland for exceptional outdoor education. Pupils have raised powan fish - a species whose numbers had been dwindling - in the school and released them into the loch and set up an orienteering course in a nearby glen.

Parent council secretary Fiona Phillips fears such opportunities will not exist for her children Mollie (P4) and Logan (P2) in a large urban school.

The community has tried to come up with imaginative ways to reduce the cost to the council of running the school, but feels frustrated by the response.

Sir Malcolm Colquhoun of Luss Estates, who has set up two schools in London, offered to pay for grounds maintenance.

Mrs Morton said such offers were welcome but it was the council's responsibility to maintain schools. It would be "socially unjust" for the existence of "rich benefactors" to be the deciding factor in saving one school and closing another, she explains.

Shared headships are a popular idea in Luss. Parish minister Dane Sherrard points out that the Church of Scotland is facing "massive cuts" and 31 ministers in the area are being reduced to 21 - but that every church will survive by sharing ministers, because "it's recognised that churches are important to the community."

A TESS survey in October showed a shared headship might save up to pound;55,000 and that the idea was becoming increasingly popular, but Argyll and Bute had only one. Mrs Morton, while not dismissing the idea, insists it would only save pound;6,000 in the case of Luss.

On one issue Mrs Morton is clear: very small schools cannot offer the breadth of social and educational experience that children deserve, and will struggle with Curriculum for Excellence.

Luss may not be among the smallest on the list but, she adds, its roll includes four placing requests and several children who already travel some distance, and the alternative school can by reached by a good road.

While having "enormous sympathy" for arguments that closures will damage communities and place unreasonable travel demands on children (rundown North Bute Primary is the only island school on the new list), Mrs Morton is surprised that the most common argument against closure has been that pupils thrive in small classes, a perceived benefit that comes "at the expense of other children in classes of 30".

Many Luss residents have long argued that affordable housing is crucial to encourage families to the village and boost the school roll. Loch Lomond National Park and Luss Estates, after years of opposing such moves, are finally warming to the idea.

"All that will count for nothing if there is not a school to come to," says Dr Sherrard. "Right when we were putting the final piece of the jigsaw together, another one was falling out."

Go Figure .

Rolls of the 10 schools with pupils; two others have none. (Figures provided by Argyll and Bute Council.)

Rhunahaorine 11

Ashfield 10

Achaleven 8

Luss 21

Toward 21

Minard 10

Skipness 3

Clachan 8

Ardchattan 3

North Bute 54

Russell cleared of wrongdoing

Education Secretary Michael Russell was cleared earlier this year of any wrongdoing by the Scottish Parliament's standards commissioner, following suggestions from Labour rivals that he had intervened in Argyll and Bute's school closure plans.

Mr Russell was accused of "poaching" parliamentary business and meddling in the sitting MSP's affairs. He lived in Argyll, was the local SNP parliamentary candidate (but not its MSP), and his wife had been affected by the local proposals. He had therefore announced that, as Education Secretary, he would take no part in ministerial decisions over the closure plans.

It also emerged that Mr Russell's wife, Cathleen, was leaving her job as head at Toward Primary - which was, and still is, facing closure - to take over Sandbank Primary, near Dunoon.

Related article: Sink or swim: rural schools battle rising tide


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