Outrage over cloned closure applications

10th February 2012 at 00:00
Ministers accuse Highland Council of cut-and-paste approach to school closure forms

The future of six Scottish schools hangs in the balance after ministers called in three separate applications for school closures which all used identical wording.

Ministers are investigating two proposals from Highland Council after it emerged that a significant section of both documents was an exact copy of text from a proposal by Angus Council, which has just been rejected after being called in last year.

In all three cases the same consultancy firm was employed by council officers to work on preliminary reports. However, Caledonian Economics Ltd categorically denied that it had written the contentious statement on the educational benefits of closure.

Parent representatives at one of the threatened schools accused councils of adopting a "one size fits all" approach that prioritised saving money over improving children's education.

The government said it was "clearly not" acceptable for councils to "copy and paste" the statements, which are supposed to set out the reasons for closing schools.

However, Highland Council defended itself, claiming the practice was so common that if it was banned, the government itself would "grind to a halt".

Dr Ewen Pearson, parent council chairman at Hillhead Primary in Wick, one of the four schools which Highland wants to close, said: "The whole educational benefits statement has basically just been copied and pasted from one by Angus Council for a school in Arbroath.

"It does not give us much confidence that they have looked into this in much detail. It's almost like a `one size fits all' approach.

"Arbroath is a town in a very different area, near Dundee. We are a very rural community here."

The four threatened schools are Pulteneytown Academy, Wick South, Hillhead and Wick North primaries. Under the plans, they would be replaced by two new purpose-built schools on the existing Wick North primary site.

Highland Council submitted two plans, each setting out a rationale for the closure of two schools in Wick that it wants to replace with a single new- build.

However, in two letters to Highland dated 25 January, Jonathan Moore, head of the government's school infrastructure unit, said: "Ministers noted that the educational benefits statement was an exact copy of a statement written for another local authority.

"They are of the view that while there may be some similarities, the schools in question are different and unique to the communities they serve and as a result, the educational benefits to be realised will not be identical."

Bill Fernie, chair of Highland's education, sport and culture committee, said: "If the government was to say you shouldn't copy and paste anything from other policies, they would grind to a halt. It's commonplace to copy statements, particularly when they relate to good practice.

"I don't think there is anything in the statements that most people wouldn't want to see in a school."

Caledonian Economics Ltd director Martin Finnigan added that it was "hardly surprising" if councils wrote "similar" proposals, given the government's push to develop standard school designs nationwide.

A government spokesman countered that its aim was still to ensure that schools were unique to the communities they served.

julia.horton@tess.co.uk

Arbroath merger plan `flawed'

Arbroath's Muirfield and Timmergreens primaries were due to merge in a new pound;8 million building until Angus Council's application was refused on grounds that there was no "auditable process" to show how the condition of schools had been rated.

A table in the council's school-estate management plan recorded Muirfield's condition as a "C", whereas calculations in the same plan showed it should have been graded "B" - making it unsuitable for closure.

The Scottish government's head of schools infrastructure, Jonathan Moore, described the council's consultation as "flawed" in a letter to Angus education director Neil Logue.

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