Rural schools find a political lease of life;Comment;Opinion

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Local councils are alarmed at the territorial ambitions of central government but they may not regard with hostility the Education Minister's desire for a role in rural school closures. If the Government - and potentially the Scottish parliament - wants to take some of the obloquy usually heaped on councillors' shoulders when a school is proposed for closure there will be more sighs of relief than accusations of imperialism.

To his officials Brian Wilson may have spoken with his heart rather than his head when he returned to his native Dunoon heath last weekend. Argyll and Bute has closures on the agenda, as do several other authorities with small schools. The Dunoon seminar was intended to clarify the issues for the sake of councillors faced with difficult decisions and for community and school spokesmen unclear about whether closures have a financial or educational rationale.

Mr Wilson called for an audit of benefit and loss to be made public for every closure proposed. He also said that finance alone should not be the prompt. At present he can offer advice only since most closures are not called in for approval. In the case of non-denominational primaries, that is when there is another school not more than five miles away. Many of the most controversial proposals recently in, say, Highland, have not therefore gone to the Secretary of State.

But equally most have been debated in the terms Mr Wilson wants. Perhaps no formal balance of advantage and disadvantage has been presented, but the arguments have amounted to a judgment where the one side has outweighed the other. Councillors after all do not incur antipathy for fun. They believe, or are led to believe by their officials, that good education or necessary savings dictate an unpopular course of action.

It is hard, too, to dissociate finance from the argument. The smallest schools do have educational drawbacks. Retaining them helps a community hold together and that is to the advantage of all age-groups. But there is a cost, which the director of education for Stirling has been brave enough to acknowledge is the only justification for closure. Before the minister says that extra cost should be borne where there is educational benefit, let him remember that central government has regularly complained to councils about the cost of empty desks and that extra money for new developments has been promised on condition that councils make savings elsewhere.

Councillors might be happy to pass the buck, but the difficult process of closing a school would be extended if objectors knew that MSPs could be involved to exert pressure on the Scottish executive, as would be the case after 2000. The Education Minister supports rural regeneration, an excellent cause. He has no doubt contrasted the weak powers of the Scottish Office with those being sought for village schools by the Department for Education and Employment. But in the hard world of politics, is he being wise?

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