Schools - Inspectorate has 'vital' part to play in rural closures
School inspectors should play a key role in determining the educational justification for rural school closures, directors of education have said.
It was "vital" that Education Scotland played a role in demonstrating the merit of closing a school because the body was highly regarded, said Leslie Manson, director of education at Orkney Council.
Cleland Sneddon, executive director for community services at Argyll and Bute Council, agreed that the inspectorate was "uniquely placed" to carry out an independent assessment in an emotionally charged situation.
In law, councils wanting to close or make any other major change to a school must outline the educational reasons for doing so. Under new government proposals, school inspectors could have more of a role in this.
However, the education leaders stressed that the involvement of Education Scotland would come with its own issues.
Evaluations and inspection reports were now less detailed than they used to be and it was quite difficult to compare one school with another, Mr Manson said.
Malcolm Burr, chief executive at Western Isles Council, agreed that safeguards would have to be put in place to ensure there was no conflict of interest within Education Scotland.
The education leaders were addressing a Scottish parliamentary committee hearing to discuss proposed amendments to the Schools (Consultation) Act 2010.
During the hearing, they also spoke out in favour of referring contested school closure decisions back to local authorities and supported the setting up of an independent body to adjudicate on decisions to close schools.
Mr Sneddon said: "Decisions on school closures should and will be made by local government. This is about ensuring that where there is concern about a decision that has been made, there will be an opportunity to review it.
"Whatever the independent referral mechanism is, we look for it to be seen to be independent and transparent, and we look for a fairly quick turnaround on decisions. We do not want to create a new bureaucracy or to have a very expensive process."
Speaking in front of the committee on the same day, education secretary Michael Russell said the process of adjudication over rural school closures needed to be simple.
"The process should be able to operate entirely independently and very simply; I do not see it involving vast numbers of lawyers or vast expense," he said.
"Things should be reviewable, but only on points of law. That would require a review by the sheriff on a point of law, which is much simpler."
Educational benefit rather than financial considerations had to be the main driver of any decision to close a school, Mr Russell added. "The concept that there is a pot of gold that can be released and applied elsewhere by closing one or 20 rural schools is usually a chimera," he said.
The committee also considered a proposal that would mean no rural school that had been considered for closure could come under threat again for five years, although concerns were raised about the extent of the time limit.
Tight financial circumstances for councils and the vulnerability of school rolls in very small schools might mean that five years was too long, education officials explained.
Another proposed amendment to the bill was the insertion of a clause making a "presumption" against rural school closures. However, this could be seen by some parents and members of the community as a promise that a closure would not be considered even when it was still a possibility, the committee heard.