Peacock pressed to act on closures

30th July 2004 at 01:00
The Scottish Executive is coming under increasing pressure from MSPs to make up its mind on what to do about school closures - and they have pointed to the council the Education Minister used to lead as an example of how the issue should be handled.

Before breaking up for the summer recess, members of the Scottish Parliament's petitions committee protested about the fact that they were considering school closures for the fourth time and were still awaiting a ministerial statement.

Peter Peacock, the minister, has promised the education committee that he would issue guidance in September. Mr Peacock told it in May that this would expect local authorities to be clear about their plans.

"They should be able to set out with great clarity precisely what it is that they seek to do, the range of options, the long-term considerations and the short-term effects," Mr Peacock said. "The work that officials are currently drafting is about exemplifying and opening up the range of considerations about which we would expect there to be clarity."

Mr Peacock added: "The material that I want to send to local authorities will better reflect the need to take into account our wider policies on rural development and rural sustainability.

"However, I do not want to mislead the committee or the wider public by suggesting that rural Scotland will be covered in aspic. It would be quite wrong to pretend that nothing will ever change."

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities had issued draft guidance to member councils, but they could not reach agreement and the matter was dropped. Further delays occurred while the Executive prepared and published its audit of the school estate earlier this year. Since then the issue has been parked.

The most recent national steer was given by Brian Wilson who, as education minister before the Scottish Parliament was established, urged local authorities to submit closure proposals to "the test of proportionate advantage", taking into account educational, financial and community factors.

But Mr Peacock made clear that two of those tests would continue to be the requirement on authorities to provide "adequate and efficient" education.

The petitions committee was considering a motion from Christine Grahame, SNP member for the south of Scotland, who has been a vociferous critic of the closures policies adopted by Scottish Borders Council. The committee agreed to press ministers for action, but side-stepped Ms Grahame's call for a moratorium on closures until national guidance was issued.

The Executive has refused to endorse calls to have a "presumption" against the closure of rural schools in particular, as exists in England. A previous petition to the parliamentary committee argued for this move.

In his evidence to the education committee, Mr Peacock set his face strongly against the idea. "If one starts with a presumption against closure, what does that actually mean? Does it mean that one will never consider a closure proposal? It does not mean that. Does it mean that, although there is a presumption against closure, we will consider such proposals? Does it mean that we will never close a school? It does not mean that either."

The Executive does not intend to introduce legislation on closures or to involve ministers any further than they are already as a final court of appeal on specific types of closure.

Closures in Scotland have varied widely during the past decade, from 32 in 1995-96 to a low of nine in 1998-99.

Rural call to arms 4 leader 14

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