Local authorities have often been selective and misleading in making the case to close rural schools, according to long-awaited and hard- hitting findings from the Commission on Rural Education.
A draft of the commission's still-unpublished report, seen by TESS, calls for an end to the "dishonesty" that plagues debate around controversial school closures, and highlights a problem of confusing legislation.
Anti-closure campaigners' argument that communities will die without their school is found to be overstated. Evidence from local authorities, however, is found to have a number of shortcomings.
Cold water is poured on a common argument for closing small schools, that pupils will be denied the benefits of curricular reform.
In fact, based on Education Scotland advice and visits to rural schools, the commission finds "generally no difficulty in delivering Curriculum for Excellence except possibly in the smallest schools. Indeed, Curriculum for Excellence can work very well in the typical two or three-teacher rural primary school."
The commission notes that a number of "very remote" schools have received "very positive" inspection reports and undertaken "sector-leading practice".
The quality of education provided by a school can fluctuate, so caution is advised that, even where the picture is less\ positive, this is merely a snapshot.
Small rural primaries and secondaries offer a "high standard of education, comparable to that provided in urban schools", with quality of staff more important than school size, although small secondaries can struggle to offer a breadth of subjects.
The picture of rural schools is not uniformly rosy. The commission depicts a rural school estate established in the 19th century, which may sometimes have "adapted very little to reflect changed demographics and economic activity of modern communities".
While a "very wide range" of people say their community would disappear without its school, the impact could be "less than was feared" - although the commission calls for detailed research to "definitively" assess the impact.
It records that populations in parts of the Western Isles, Moray, Dumfries and Galloway and Highland continued to fall despite their retaining a school; it highlights, too, the Hebridean island of Grimsay, which has thrived thanks to fishing despite having no school since the 1990s.
Local authorities are criticised for sometimes giving the impression that closure is a fait accompli - the possibility of keeping the school open "should always be included" in consultation.
The commission calls for statutory guidance on the information to be provided by authorities on potential closures, given "serious concerns that on a few occasions the standard of consultation and accuracy of information has been poor".
Perhaps the most flimsy evidence relied on by local authorities concerns school capacity.
Closure proposals often cite an Audit Scotland guideline that good use of a school building requires capacity of at least 60 per cent, and sometimes an even higher figure.
The commission considers this guideline more relevant to urban schools; indeed, Audit Scotland told it that "there was no set school-utilisation percentage figure".
The commission concludes that "capacity measurements (have) little if any place in the assessment of the viability of small remote schools".
In fact, under-capacity - "almost inevitable in serving a small population" - may even provide benefits. Large spaces are helpful for individual learning in composite classes, and allow the school to be used by other services.
But the "dishonesty" that the commission finds in debates over closures is not blamed entirely on those making the claims - the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 is also at fault.
The act is found to be ambiguous. Its "presumption against closure" causes "conflict" because it can be interpreted in different ways, and it restricts authorities to presenting educational reasons for closure. This inability to cite financial pressures has "damaged local authorities' credibility" and prevents "an honest debate".
The commission is "concerned that requiring an education authority to base its school closure proposals solely on educational benefit is not helpful or realistic", and makes it "pit one school's provision against another and magnify small differences".
The report calls for "greater rigour around financial information", and stresses "it is not always safe to assume significant savings".
WORTHY OF NOTE
Other points in the draft report:
- there should be a defined period within which Scottish ministers must decide whether to call in and examine an authority's decision to close a school;
- the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010 gives rural schools extra protection so that "the burden of the current financial squeeze is disproportionately borne by larger, urban schools";
- repeated attempts to close a school dissuade parents from sending their children there; if a school stays open no subsequent closure proposal should be made for a prescribed period - perhaps five years;
- local authorities have different views on the time children spend travelling to school, so a national maximum should be considered;
- providing pre-school services may make rural schools more viable;
- more thought should be given to the appropriateness of mothballing schools.
BATTLE AGAINST SCHOOL CLOSURES
The Commission on Rural Education was established in July 2011 with support from the Scottish government and Cosla.
A moratorium was declared on rural school closures while the commission - chaired by Sheriff David Sutherland and including members from local authorities, schools, protest groups and academia - carried out its work.
Its findings have been delayed by legal proceedings - unresolved as TESS went to press - after the government appealed against a judicial ruling that the Western Isles Council could proceed with closing four schools.
The council had hoped to shut the schools by August 2011. Last June council leader Angus Campbell said keeping them open for an extra year had cost about pound;800,000.
Photo: The secondary department at Skerries School in Shetland has been threatened repeatedly with closure. Photo credit: James Fraser Rex
Original headline: Process for rural school closures comes under fire