Rural schools are worth fighting for

6th February 2004 at 00:00
The axe is hovering again as directors start to prune their budgets, says Michael Russell

In the spring, according to Tennyson, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. However, in the same season the thoughts of Scotland's directors of education turn to a less inspiring challenge. As they prepare their final budgets for approval in March, they must consider, once more, the question of school closures.

This year the impetus to do so is particularly strong. Not only are council finances still under pressure but the Accounts Commission has twisted the knife by drawing attention to the fact that more and more schools - particularly primary schools - are below what is generally taken to be the definitive cut-off line, an occupancy rate of 60 per cent.

And for those directors of education who are enthusiastically rebuilding or refurbishing their school estates with the aid of public private partnership (PPP) projects, there is an added necessity to cut costs on other infrastructure, for PPP payments in almost every case are gobbling money for education and will do so beyond the foreseeable future.

There is little they can do about that. The die is cast in the form of inappropriate binding contracts which will need a governmental solution.

New and refurbished buildings are vital and much to be welcomed, but paying over the odds in virtual perpetuity for them was always going to be a foolish step. There is also little that directors can do about budget squeeze.

There needs to be a wholesale reform of local government organisation, financing and taxation before the issue can be properly addressed and there is little appetite in the present Scottish Executive for challenging the many vested interests which are involved. Proportional representation is enough of a cause for resentment for the time being.

Thus it is that directors of education have constantly got to keep costs under control. When so much of their budgets goes on staffing - usually sacrosanct - the areas in which other savings can be made are limited, and building repair and maintenance along with transport will always be a target. The fewer schools there are, the argument goes, the less those costs will be.

For most councils this approach fits neatly into the current fad for centralisation in all the public services and, if the Accounts Commission adds further pressure, so much the better. Expect between now and March much assertion by councils that closures are "required" under a "60 per cent occupancy rule".

Except that they aren't. There is no such rule and no such national standard. Councils can determine their own nominal capacity for school buildings and usually do. Most such published capacities relate to methods of teaching and utilisation that are many years out of date. For example, a school which is meant, according to the council, to hold 100 pupils could usually only do so by removing all the computers and by occupying social spaces - such as dining halls and gyms - as classrooms. Such a school would also usually break government requirements on class sizes and they are still not ambitious enough.

In addition, there is nothing magic about the 60 per cent figure. Some would argue that such a figure, even if based on more realistic assessments of full occupancy, is virtually irrelevant unless the precise circumstances of the school are known. In many rural communities, achieving a consistent 60 per cent would be impossible. In others, a higher than average number of children with special needs makes conventional views of space requirements meaningless.

In any case, the fact that a school has declining numbers of pupils - a truism in most rural areas - might better be seen as a cause for attempting to generate social and economic growth in the community it serves, rather than removing the facility. That would be truly joined-up government.

Certainly in city and town areas, there are economic cases for rationalising the infrastructure if that can be done by providing better schools without damaging communities and - essentially - individual children and their lives. In rural areas the matter is very different and the removal of a school should be undertaken solely for reasons of educational improvement and only where there is no resulting consequence of social or economic damage to that community.

Some schools close themselves by a terminal reduction in numbers, by a building coming to the end of its usable life, or by the growth of new communities with better facilities near enough to make no difference. Yet even in those circumstances much thought and much wide consultation is needed before an irrevocable step is taken.

But while councils will say that they always consult over school closures, most consultation is presently a sham. There are no national guidelines and the cards are all in the council's hand. Repeated attempts by the education committee in the last Parliament to persuade the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Executive to come up with a clear and consistent national framework failed completely, and there is no sign of action on the horizon.

As a result, many communities find that their chances of fighting off closure are fatally compromised by their own local authority.

So some words of advice to parents, teachers - and children - who are determined to save their school. First, don't believe what the councils tell you: they are the ones that want to close the school and everything they say is coloured by that. They also make the rules but don't always play by them.

Second, get organised and articulate and make a fuss - being quiet just doesn't work. Third, petition the Parliament and pressure your MSPs and draw attention to the fact that, without national standards and guidelines, the whole matter is a rigged lottery.

Finally, don't accept that modern or bigger is necessarily better just because politicians and directors of education say so. Education is about people not buildings. Scotland is not one whit better off for closing a good school and the current passion for doing so is the educational and community equivalent of eating the seedcorn.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator and was formerly the SNP's education spokesperson. This is the first of a monthly series.

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