Opt-outs left to wither on the vine

16th May 1997 at 01:00
School closures could be back on the agenda following the Government's decision to end the status of self-governing schools.

Parents from Orkney to Glasgow have resorted to opt-out ballots to frustrate plans for school rationalisation. But while there are no immediate plans to repeal the legislation decisions to bring Dornoch Academy and St Mary's Episcopal primary in Dunblane back into "the local authority framework" spell the end of the road.

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, said the move "will bring to an end the uncertainty and divisiveness which self-governing schools have caused throughout Scottish education".

The announcement also means that Fort William primary, which had been due to opt out from August 1, will remain within Highland Council control. The applications from John Bosco, its second, and from Greeness primary in Aberdeenshire have also been rejected.

Ian Dutton, the former director of education in the Borders who was hired by the Scottish Office as a part-time consultant on self-governing schools, has had his contract terminated.

Highland and Stirling councils now face what could be lengthy negotiations over the terms for Dornoch and St Mary's to re-enter the local government fold.

The schools face precise legislative hurdles, from passing a resolution of their boards to public consultation and final approval by the Secretary of State.

Allan Gilchrist, Highland's director of education, said the Scottish Office target of "the earliest practicable date" when they would resume responsibility for the 80-pupil Dornoch Academy "will not be August". That means the previous approval for it to become a four-year school next session stands.

Val MacIver, Highland's education chairman, would not be drawn on whether there would be a review of schools in East Sutherland where secondaries at Golspie and Tain are close to Dornoch. But that does not rule out a review of catchment areas.

Mrs MacIver said, however, that the council was bound to resume consideration of its 4,000 surplus primary places, including the 600 in the Fort William area which sparked the parental ballot there over closure fears.

"We have got to invest in education not empty accommodation," she said, "and we must redouble our efforts to get that message across."

Although Fort William is a Highland Council school, its previous passage towards self-government means it has acquired transitional powers. Mr Gilchrist said this prevents the authority "moving a single teacher or pencil without consulting the school board".

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