Sandy Longmuir

9th March 2012 at 00:00
The chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network discusses his fall-out with Cosla over its agenda on closures, a shortage of financial savvy among senior local authority figures and his sense of injustice in the face of flawed consultations with local communities

The rural schools commission will publish its findings later this year. Why did you resign from it in November?

I didn't agree with joint ownership between Cosla and the Scottish government. A Freedom of Information request showed that Cosla had a working group behind the scenes, steering members and giving suggested aims. The chair made it clear we were there as independent thinkers, not to further agendas. The FOI made it clear that Cosla had an agenda.

Is it ever right to close a rural school?

Yes, we've supported closures. The people who know best are the people who use the school and are part of the community.

Aberdeenshire has said schools should have at least 19 pupils. Do you agree?

It's nonsense. You have to look at where the school is. Fair Isle Primary (Shetland) has nine kids, but the education they're getting is unbelievable. They have work included in scientific papers and the school runs the only newspaper on the island.

You have argued that, in some cases, it's more costly to close a school. How?

That's true in most cases. The cost of transporting a class of pupils is about the same as a teacher's starting salary. And authorities are compensated for operating small schools. If they close the schools, they lose the money.

So why do local authorities press on?

First, they don't understand the finance. I've had to explain to five finance directors how their own revenue grant works. Only one has said, "You're right" - Colin McMahon in Angus. The rest just changed their reports.

Local authorities say small schools will struggle with CfE. What do you think?

There's no research on this over the past three years, other than HMIE inspections. If there's a problem, how come schools like Minard, Arrochar, and Uyeasound get outstanding grades for curriculum delivery? Some schools with glowing recommendations have fewer than 10 pupils.

What do you make of criticism that urban schools have not been afforded the same protection by legislation?

There is an argument that some special criteria for rural schools should overlap onto urban school consultations. There may be cases where there is travel involved, or there is a distinct community within a community, but in general the act is there to recognise the unique role rural schools play in distinct rural communities.

And education directors' idea that all children and parents in an authority should be consulted on closures?

If you're doing that, there has to be huge weighting towards the people directly affected. And it's all about accurate presentation of facts. Angus Council deliberately portrayed a huge advantage in merging two primaries, which on closer examination wasn't there (TESS, 10 February). If you're going to involve other communities, they have to be informed of the impact. Everywhere we've gone, I can't stress enough that proposed savings have come from reductions in teachers. The whole thing is on a premise of reducing quality of education.

Do you think all local authorities have an agenda against rural schools?

Some are exemplary - Perth and Kinross had a consultation on the whole rural estate, and you couldn't fault it. Scottish Borders has transformed itself in recent years; Dumfries and Galloway, too, has a positive attitude to rural schools; Highland, in general, recognises their importance. But in others there's a philosophical dogma. They see it as children from a rural idyll, a more advantaged background, getting a better education than inner-city children. We often see it coming back to an equality agenda - but it's levelling down.

What is the best-case scenario that could emerge from the rural schools commission?

The call-in process - from what is actually a decent act - is not working as envisaged. Neither we nor education directors understand what's going on. We've analysed call-ins and see no pattern. Decision letters are brief and don't tell you anything. We want call-ins taken away from government, and a transparent, judiciary-style panel to examine the evidence - similar to what happens with the information commissioner.

And the worst?

Cosla gets everything it has asked for: reclassification of several hundred rural schools as non-rural; a change to the funding mechanism by which schools are supported, so that it's more cost-efficient to close a rural school. Cosla is promoting the argument of social dysfunction, for which there's no evidence. Ofsted ranked schools by personal development of the child; the top-performing group was those with fewer than 50 pupils.

What drives you to spend so much time defending rural schools?

A childlike sense of injustice. They came to close my daughter's school, Arbirlot Primary, in Angus, in 2004, and gave a talk about their reasons. I bought it - I couldn't believe highly paid officials would tell lies that could easily be checked. I phoned a guy at the Scottish Executive the next morning and he started laughing when I asked how hard and fast it was that a school had to have a 100-square-metre gymnasium. He said: "Do you know how many rural schools in Scotland don't have a gymnasium?" Yet the council based its whole argument on this. I got angry and started to dig, and came up with more and more lies.


Born: Arbroath, 1961

Education: Carmyllie Primary; Arbroath High; University of Aberdeen, BSc in agricultural sciences.

Career: Adviser at the Ministry of Agriculture in London 1984-86; freelance agricultural adviser 1986-89; full-time running of his own business, Longmuir Engineering, since 1989. Chair of Scottish Rural Schools Network since 2005.

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