Shut up shop or save our schools?
Some years ago, when visiting a remote rural school in Sutherland with two Canadian directors of education, they commented on the expense it must be to maintain an establishment with only a handful of pupils.
"I suppose we could send them to Eton for what it costs," I remarked. "Why not then, if it saved the authority money?" one of them quipped. "We want to conserve their Highland accent," I replied, to their great amusement.
Fuelled by comments from Peter Peacock, who would certainly oppose a move to ship pupils to the private sector, even if it saved money, the debate on the future of small schools in Scotland is open once again.
While cash-starved local authorities may see school closures as a way to balance the books, education chiefs have learned that an increasing number of parents in some communities are rising in opposition to any plans they may have. In the run-up to elections, other politicians are also jumping on the "save our schools" bandwagon.
In former county council days, prior to the local government re-organisation of the early 1970s, many education authorities, faced with the need to rationalise provision and often specifically to improve accommodation, amalgamated large numbers of remote rural schools. More often than not, it made sense to close schools built at a time when roads and transport were not so good and when many families lived on rural estates. The carrot of improved facilities in a brand new or upgraded building convinced most parents at the time.
Nowadays, many rural communities consider the proposed closure of their local school as part of a similar debate on the removal of banks and post offices: a downward spiral leading to the demise of village life as they know it.
So, who is right? Does size matter when it comes to the education of pupils across the country? And should rural schools be kept open at any cost?
Looking at attainment statistics alone, there is no evidence that pupils in most small schools are "deprived". Some would argue there is evidence from inspection reports that the opposite is the case, with one-to-one attention helping pupils to raise achievement across the curriculum - not to mention matters of ethos and environment.
Speaking to colleagues across Scotland, I found that the definition of "small" varies from one end of the country to the other. Some mainly urban authorities define schools with less than 60 puils as almost unviable in the wider scheme of things. But, in more rural areas, that would be considered one of the larger establishments.
Then there is the problem of staff recruitment. Despite improved remuneration for promoted postholders under the post-McCrone settlement, an increasing number of vacant posts for class-committed headteachers is failing to attract suitable applicants. The fact is that the basic administration of a small rural school remains similar to that of an urban one, but the headteacher has to manage, deal with parents and teach a class, even if part-time.
The answer for some directors of education is to close small schools until the distance between those that remain open is so great that closure is not an option, even if only one or two pupils remain.
An alternative is to "mothball" schools which effectively close themselves as pupils leave, thus keeping the building in good shape if a family arrives. This has happened in Highland, which is also piloting cluster arrangements, whereby a group of up to three schools is managed by a non-class committed headteacher.
Although it may be too early to evaluate their success in some communities, there is evidence that it may prove to be a model for others to copy.
Teachers get on with teaching, headteachers get on with managing and they are able to avoid re-inventing the wheel of administration from one remote school to the next. Planning, quality assurance and overall support is co-ordinated in ways not possible before.
There is an assumption that it is only small rural schools whose futures are in doubt. But falling rolls also hit urban establishments, resulting in more composite classes and previously non-class committed heads finding themselves managing a class as well as a school. In that situation, size and location militate against clustering. But, when there are fewer teachers and large numbers of empty rooms, amalgamation may be the solution.
However, local authorities are likely to face similar opposition to closures in urban areas, where parents also see their local school as part of their community.
Whatever the alternatives open to them, politicians and officials alike, faced with financial constraints, not least those related to rising maintenance and energy costs, will be faced with difficult and unpopular decisions - but, no doubt, not until after the elections in May 2007.
John Muir is a quality development officer with Highland Council