Peacock washes his hands of closures

1st October 2004 at 01:00
"School closures are nothing to do with me," Peter Peacock is effectively telling parents, David Henderson writes.

The Education Minister has rebuffed any suggestion of intervening in disputes and told councils to get on with it, provided they act knowledgeably and reasonably.

Draft guidance issued to the Scottish Parliament's education committee on Wednesday did not convince all MSPs, however, and they agreed to seek clarification on some issues, including the legal status of the final guidance. There was also concern over rural closures and schools that are almost fully occupied.

Mr Peacock last summer ruled out any idea of introducing "presumptions against closure" measures that have been established south of the border and of tinkering with legislation. True to his word, he and his officials have now spelt out a lengthy list of checks and procedures authorities must follow before reaching a final decision.

The Executive maintains: "It is not the role of ministers to second-guess decisions taken by an authority or to act as some sort of 'appeal court'

for those who disagree with a council's decision. Ministers could never be in possession of all the local facts and 'intelligence' that informs a council decision, such as would enable them to 'rerun' or 'retake' the council's decision."

It adds: "Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, ministers have no locus to, and cannot interfere or intervene in, council proposals for and against decisions on school changes or closures beyond their defined role in cases where the council decision must be referred for ministerial consent."

These exceptions are where a school's roll is more than 80 per cent of capacity; where primary pupils have to go to an alternative school five or more miles away, or 10 miles for secondary pupils; where in some cases there are changes to denominational schools.

Ministers' role then "will principally be to act as a check that authorities have complied with all statutory requirements and processes and have demonstrated that in all the circumstances they have taken a reasonable decision".

There is no set timescale for meeting any decision.

Ministers have been under pressure from MSPs and parents over closure plans across Scotland as part of the national refurbishment of school buildings.

Opposition has been particularly vocal recently in Scottish Borders, Midlothian, Shetland and Edinburgh.

Leader 22

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