Net closes on rural primaries

21st March 1997 at 00:00
A remarkable week in the life of Dumfries and Galloway began with five primary schools under threat of closure and ended with all primary and secondary schools being put under the microscope. A report will now be drawn up by officials over the next six months and few will be surprised if the same five schools continue to feature as potential candidates for closure.

"It was a sprat to catch a mackerel," one insider said of the council's strategy, the ultimate prize being an apparent acceptance by councillors that for the first time in 11 years they will have to tackle school closures, driven on by warnings from the Accounts Commission that all councils must reduce surplus places.

But there is plenty of scope for the strategy to come off the rails. Allan Baldwick, convener of the Independent-Liberal Democrat council was among the strongest voices urging councillors "not to bury their heads in the sand", and the first to call for Glentrool primary in Kirkcudbrightshire to be removed from the hit list. Parents protesting at round trips for some pupils of up to 50 miles had presented an impressive case, Mr Baldwick said as they sat with their banners in the committee room.

This then led to pressure for the four other primaries - Dundrennan in Kirkcudbrightshire, Torthorwald and Westerkirk in Dumfriesshire and All Soul's in Wigtown - to be given similar treatment. Mr Baldwick appeared to resist such a move, proposing that the future of the remaining four schools should be subject to public consultation. But, having sensed the temperature of the meeting soar, he agreed to withdraw the list in favour of a comprehensive look at all the council's schools while still making clear he would vote to retain Glentrool.

Fraser Sanderson, the head of primary education, told The TES Scotland that schools would be reviewed if they were 50 per cent underoccupied, were within reasonable travelling distance of the nearest alternative, or were costly to repair.

Councillors had been infuriated to learn of the proposed closures on BBC Radio Solway, which led to a vigorous denial by Ken Macleod, the director of education, that there had been any leak from the education department. William Service, an Independent councillor, had "eight telephone calls before eight o'clock on Saturday morning".

They decided none the less to put off a decision. All were concerned at the inconsistency between closing country schools and the council's overall policy of "sustainability in rural areas".

But none of the councillors publicly took the robust line of Leon McCaig, the education vice-chairman and former teachers' representative on the committee.

Mr McCaig said: "We know the cuts are going to continue and that our resources are going to be spread gey thin. We need to make our resources thicker and if that means we have to rationalise schools, then that is the way we must go. Today is the first step in a long and arduous process."

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