Peacock pledge on closures

28th October 2005 at 01:00
The Education Minister is to tighten guidelines on school closures because of his concern at unnecessary alarm caused to parents during recent consultations.

Peter Peacock revealed his intention at the Scottish Parliament's education committee on Wednesday. The review of the existing statutory guidance might include informal consultations, which are not covered by the present rules.

Mr Peacock also disclosed that he was looking at whether parents, under certain circumstances, should be able to refer controversial proposals to the inspectorate, and that discussions were being held about Audit Scotland's ruling that the future of schools which are less than 60 per cent occupied should be reviewed.

Mr Peacock voiced concern at the way some recent consultations appeared to raise unnecessary alarm in local communities. There had been genuine confusion about the status of proposals and in some cases an insufficient distinction between "informal, preliminary" soundings and the more formal, statutory consultations which had emerged from a thorough appraisal.

A Moray councillor had approached him over proposals to close 21 schools and MSPs had raised the effect of some councils using informal, non-statutory procedures to initiate consultations.

"I think there is an issue there," Mr Peacock said. "I believe the way in which particularly Moray Council conducted a recent exercise gave rise to huge anxiety across that community. It was done under an informal procedure, so therefore the guidance didn't apply.

"I think that was unfortunate and I am looking to tighten up the procedures. We could probably help to prevent this sort of thing happening again by extending the guidance to informal consultation, though I need to think more about that in the practical sense."

Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokesperson, urged Mr Peacock to ensure that parents were involved in a local authority working party being set up to revise best practice.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Tory education spokesman, asked why a "presumption" against closure in England did not apply north of the border.

Mr Peacock replied: "I have looked at the English guidance quite closely and I would regard our guidance as being significantly tougher".

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