As schools across Scotland start back for the new session, it is a good time to draw people's attention to the important consultation currently running on safeguarding our rural schools. As an example of how schools consultation should provide maximum opportunity to respond, we allowed three full months of term time on this important issue, and there is just one week left for people to express their views.
I believe local schools are a crucial part of supporting vibrant local communities and economies in towns and villages across rural Scotland. Maintaining provision of schools and nurseries in many rural areas can be vital in sustaining and developing both.
The potential impact of school closures on small, remote communities, where the school is often the hub, goes beyond the pupils, staff and parents. Their presence can encourage families to stay in an area and even attract new families to our more fragile rural communities, therefore contributing hugely to their long-term sustainability.
It is important that they are protected, which is why this Government intends to safeguard their future with legislation.
School closure proposals are emotive, and parents and local communities sometimes find it difficult to understand and participate fully in consultations under the current process. I want to try to rectify that by improving the 1981 regulations governing the consultation processes for all school closures and for changes of site and catchment area. This is something which I believe is long overdue.
I want to see implemented a process for handling all school closures that is fairer, more robust and more transparent, and I want to see better consultation before any decision is taken.
Our proposals would lead to a number of improvements in the way authorities consult on all school closures. They would have to provide an educational benefit statement, consult for a minimum of six weeks of term time and extend the list of consultees to include, among others, HMIE.
When rural schools in particular are being considered for closure in future, local authorities must, before deciding to propose and consult on closure, have regard to the alternatives; the impact on the community, including use of the buildings; and the impact on the environment of new travel requirements.
If, having considered these points, they decide to propose closure, they would have to spell out clearly in a consultation paper their conclusions on each of these issues. Many of the changes proposed are already established good practice for many authorities, but this Government believes they should be legal requirements for all.
In the final week remaining for consultation, people can find further information at www.ltscotland.org.ukparentzone.
Once we have considered the responses to the consultation, we intend to introduce a bill to parliament at the earliest opportunity so that we can start safeguarding Scotland's rural schools.
Fiona Hyslop is Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.