Raymond Ross went to Cumbernauld to find out why one of the most high profile education authorities has a bitter battle on its hands despite consultation.
It's good to talk, or so the old BT adverts used to remind us. But it's a slogan likely to raise ironic smiles among members of North Lanarkshire's education department, where an informal consultation process on proposed school closures seems to have backfired.
Bitter accusations of duplicity, dishonesty and dubious motivations - as well as threats of legal action by parents against the local council - are colouring a dialogue that was originally intended to be constructive.
One of the Sixties architects' dreams, Cumbernauld has won awards as the safest town in Britain. Originally planned to keep walkways apart from roads, the town has developed and changed over the years. The population is expanding north of the A80 where a lot of private housing has been built, and the proposals for closures, mergers and new schools are intended to ensure that all children live within a mile of their primary school, instead of being bussed past primaries to placements further away.
"We want to build two new primary schools north of the A80 where there are none. There has to be a diminution of places elsewhere," argues Charles Gray, education convener.
The director of education, Michael O'Neill, explains: "We have 2,500 empty places. We'll cut this to 1,000 but that leaves flexibility for pre-five expansion and parental choice. It's about getting the most effective learning environment.
"Class sizes will be larger, but there will be fewer composite classes and a broader range of expertise among teaching staff, more learning support experience and more promoted staff. Simply because the schools will be larger, the combined support will be greater."
Cash saved by the rationalisation and sale of land will, says Mr Gray, be kept for education. "Money will be spent in Cumbernauld, but any surplus after the new building and upgrading of present schools will be used to improve St Ignatius in Wishaw. It is in dire need of improvement."
Guarantees have also been given by the education department that no teaching jobs will go and any headteachers affected will have salaries conserved.
Michael O'Neill is proud of the "unique" informal consultation process which has been carried out. Starting in August, the council held 22 informal "information meetings" with council members, members of parliament, union representatives, local press, teaching and non-teaching staff and parent representatives to discuss proposals to close up to six primary schools and build two new ones on a shared campus. Parents were also surveyed.
"I don't think any local authority has ever consulted the way we have. We didn't have to do it and no one can say we have not consulted to the maximum. In fact, three proposals were dropped through the informal consultation, because it showed they were unworkable," says Mr O'Neill.
"The five year plan is that there will be three or four fewer schools but two new-build. It's a positive story. Parents will wonder what all the fuss was about when their children are in the new schools."
Formal consultation is under way and due to end on November 30. The revised proposal being considered is to close Glenhead primary, merge Langlands and Melrose and either amalgamate Sacred Heart and St Joseph's or close St Joseph's and rezone its catchment area to Sacred Heart and St Mary's. With these arrangements in place by August 2000, a new campus would be built within three years north of the A80 to accommodate the oversubscribed Cumbernauld primary, plus a new Catholic school.
"We are very sensitive to the fact that there will be disruption in the short term but we have no doubt the long term benefits outweigh this," says Mr O'Neill.
But parents are not happy and neither, apparently, is the convenor. Mr Gray says: "We invited trouble through the informal consultation process. In retrospect, I think it was a mistake. We have been generous, decent and up front but have met only closed minds and knee-jerk reactions."
A principal bone of contention has been the survey. A total of 167 completed questionnaires were received by the council, drawn from 15 school communities in the Cumbernauld area, and the director's report to the education committee last month stated: "There was a general acceptance by parents that a review of primary school provision in some areas of Cumbernauld was required but not if the outcome of the review affected the school(s) in their specific community."
But Lynda Campbell (pictured right), spokesperson for the Cumbernauld Save Our Schools campaign, says: "There is no general acceptance among parents of the proposals. We have over 10,000 signatures objecting to all the closures and we have the support of all the political parties other than Labour." She also challenges figures for returned questionnaires from some of the schools: 14 from Cumbernauld, 4 from St Joseph's, 6 from Glenhead, 33 from Langlands, 8 from Melrose and 1 from Sacred Heart.
She has two boys attending St Joseph's and claims to have seen 15 completed questionnaires handed in. "Four is a ridiculous number," she says. "It's blatantly wrong. A lot of parents have said to me they returned forms and I don't think the council's figures are an adequate reflection. Another St Joseph's parent, Malcolm Hamilton, says: "I know of at least 20 missing questionnaires."
Chris Evans, whose eight-year-old son David attends St Joseph's, says parents are so angry because it appeared the decisions were made up to three years ago. "The whole thing reeks, there's been dirty dealings and the whole thing was signed, sealed and delivered long before we heard about it.".
Cathy Gibbons' eight-year-old son David attends Glenhead primary, a "nice little school that's only five minutes away" but she fears for his safety and his education if the closures go ahead.
"He will have to walk 30 minutes to school and cross two busy roads, and when he gets there the teacher won't have time to focus on him if he needs help, because the class will have 30 children."
Charles Gray says: "The SOS campaign contains elements who are only out to make trouble. The SNP and Tommy Sheridan's Scottish Socialists are behind it. We are not enjoying the process of having to close schools but it has to be done. We have the equivalent of six primary schools in empty places in Cumbernauld. The status quo is not an option." Mr Hamilton insists:
"None of us in SOS is a member of a political party and up to now none of us has been involved in pressure groups or campaigns. We are ordinary parents who are pig sick, scunnered and angered."
Over at Cumbernauld primary, the chair of the school board, solicitor Ken McCracken, says that in conjunction with the parent teacher association they carried out their own survey of all the school's parents and got a response back from two thirds of them: "The council's preferred option of moving the school to a new-build shared campus with a new denominational school was the least popular with parents out of four options which included maintaining status quo and giving the school a new site.
"The clear preference was to retain the school in Cumbernauld village where it has been for over a century, to improve it and rezone the school's catchment area".
He says there was "a lot of cynicism among parents" and belief "that decisions have already been taken. We have asked for all sorts of details about the proposed new school but no reply has been forthcoming yet. All their arguments are economic and not about the quality of education".
Charles Gray is surprised at the "vehemence" of opposition to the new school. "Economics comes into any service provision," he says, "but it is unfair to say that quality of education has not been addressed: 45 per cent of present pupils come from where the new school will be built. It will be state of the art. In general, the proposed rationalisation will mean primary education in Cumbernauld will be the best in North Lanarkshire.
"The new school will probably be open plan, built on the design of the Alexander Peden school in Shotts. Parents have been told this." Michael O'Neill adds: "The combined campus for the new school housing Cumbernauld primary and the new denominational school will retain the commonality of the catchment area while the integrity of the denominational school will be maintained. The playground will be shared by the pupils and the staffroom by the teachers."
Responding to parental anxieties about class sizes and claims that this rationalisation is an opportunity to reduce them and not increase them, Mr Gray says: "Holding onto the present schools until we have a teacher pupil ratio of one to 25 is pie in the sky. No one has challenged our figures of falling roles."
At Langlands primary, which is threatened with a merger, the school chaplain and parent, the Rev David Cook wrote to Mr O'Neill accusing the council of "deliberate dishonesty" over its figures, claiming that there has been "an inadequate time for proper consultations".
SNP councillor and former Provost of Cumbernauld Gordon Murray said "The timescale has left too little time. Formal submissions have to be in by November 30 and the full council meets on December 16 with a special education committee meeting two days before that. Councillors not on that committee will have only two days to consider the proposals.
"It's almost certain that parents will lodge an action in the courts saying the consultation has not been properly carried out. There is a need for compromise, but the council has boxed itself into a corner. They thought their informal consultation would soften the impact, but it's blown up in their faces."