Pupils 'treated as pawns' in school closure process

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
But law change will force councils to hold meaningful discussions, children's agency says

Pupils at schools threatened with closure have been routinely treated as "pawns", according to the agency Children in Scotland - but a change in the law next week promises to make that a thing of the past.

A paper entitled Participants, Not Pawns, prepared by the agency for the Children's Commissioner, charges local authorities with ignoring young people's views on closures. Research suggests that pupils and their parents, as well as teachers, have been left "distressed and angry".

The means of notifying families about school closures have also caused consternation, the paper claims. Sending letters home in children's schoolbags, for example, was "on a par with a permission slip for a school trip".

But it says that growing public dissatisfaction has forced local politicians to handle school closures with "greater sensitivity", and the 2010 Schools (Consultation) Act, which comes into force next week, makes it a legal requirement for pupils' views to be canvassed.

Tam Baillie, the Children's Commissioner, believes it is possible "to draw pertinent responses from even the youngest children".

But Children in Scotland wants to see consultation carried out by a "genuinely independent person" rather than anyone with a vested interest, including local authority staff.

Its document also insists that sticking to a statutory six-week minimum consultation period would make it difficult to hold "meaningful" discussions with children, even in a very small school.

Authorities are advised to allow more time for consultation if they are to avoid "tokenistic" involvement of children, not to mention "anger and cynicism" in school communities.

Proposals should be translated into concepts and language that pupils find easy to understand, the guidance recommends.

Pictures of different facial expressions might help pupils articulate their feelings, while the use of dolls and puppets could help young children cope with the potentially upsetting process of consultation.

Authorities should take into account that pupils' opinions might be affected by a weak grasp of important concepts. In a past consultation, for example, pupils seemed relatively unconcerned about the long bus journeys they would need to take to their new school, but none had experience of regularly travelling any great distance by public transport.

The paper adds that the threat of closure can be "particularly distressing" in rural areas, where losing a school may change the community's way of life.

Sandy Longmuir, chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, who was on the panel that approved the paper, expressed concern that councils might still ride roughshod over its advice.

He pointed to a controversial six-week consultation on the closure of Crossroads Primary in East Ayrshire, which finished this week. Although it complied with the new act's requirement to consult children, Mr Longmuir argued that the consultation disregarded the advice endorsed by the commissioner.

It was carried out by East Ayrshire Council, for example, rather than an independent person, and Mr Longmuir claimed that children's views had been canvassed during "20 minutes of circle time".

But Graham Short, executive director of educational and social services at East Ayrshire, said the council had shown "due regard" to the guidance.

Officials had consulted in settings with which children were comfortable, such as circle time, but had also invited written and emailed responses, he added. And pupils would be given feedback on the consultation, as recommended in the new guidance.

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk

www.childreninscotland.org.uk; www.sccyp.org.uk.

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