Last autumn, Argyll and Bute Council announced that 26 of its 80 primary schools were to close in one fell swoop. Suddenly, a huge test of new legislation designed to protect rural education was looming. Were Scotland's smallest schools, when it came to the credit crunch, worth saving?
There have already been dramatic consequences: the ruling administration fell apart as SNP councillors walked out in protest; Education Secretary Michael Russell was reported to the Scottish Parliament's standards commissioner, later cleared, for political "meddling" in an area where he was a parliamentary candidate but not an MSP (the fact that his wife was transferred from her headteacher post at a closure-threatened school to a safer one also attracted comment); and the proposals led to an uprising of irate parents. After little more than two months, they were ditched.
A new list was drawn up, reducing the number of closure-threatened schools to 12, at least until next year. The next landmark date is April 19, when councillors will agree on proposals to be put to the public.
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, says last year's Schools (Consultation) Act is already making it harder to argue for closures, whatever precedent is set in Argyll and Bute.
"You have to make an extremely strong argument about the quality of education, which is not necessarily the starting point for councils at a time of significant reductions in funding," he says.
His concern is that the definition of a rural school is unclear, so the basis on which closures can be contested is open to interpretation, making it hard to anticipate whether a proposal will be called in by ministers.
At a time of extreme budget pressures, Mr Stodter knows councils can ill afford to go down blind alleys. Closing a single school is a process involving a huge amount of work for council staff and can take more than a year. "It sucks out so much energy," he says.
The first high-profile test of the new legislation came last July, when the Government ruled that East Ayrshire had consulted properly over 52- pupil Crossroads Primary and could proceed with closure.
Even so, executive director of educational and social services Graham Short is frustrated by a "clear imbalance". Underpopulated rural schools are afforded special protection, he says, while there is no legal requirement to consult the public on the closure of RAF bases that employ thousands.
A school closure might in the past have taken six weeks from announcing the proposal to a decision being taken, Mr Short adds. Now, it is more likely to take five months. This, he says, forces councils to look for other ways of reducing expenditure, as outcomes are too uncertain to be relied on in budgets; a closure proposal has to be treated as a potential "bonus" saving.
"In the budget setting that we're facing in the next couple of years, it's paradoxical that we have all these resources locked up in surplus school places and can't free them," says Mr Short.
Anti-closure campaigners have been emboldened by the new legislation. Murdo MacDonald, convener of the Argyll Rural Schools Network, underlines that councils must prove a closure will benefit children educationally and not damage the surrounding community.
Luing Primary, on an island 19 miles south of Oban, was removed from the original list after it was shown the journey time to an alternative school would exceed a 45-minute limit set by the council. "Killer blows" were being prepared elsewhere when the original list was scrapped on 5 January, says Mr MacDonald. He remains convinced of the cases to save the 10 working schools still on the hit list.
When the SNP walked out of their joint administration with independent councillors, Argyll and Bute's Liberal Democrats and Conservatives stepped into the void.
Lib Dem leader Ellen Morton, a former English teacher, became the council's education spokesperson, charged with drawing up the new list.
Since the turn of the year, she has visited 66 of Argyll and Bute's primary schools, in an attempt to persuade communities that the council is listening to them. But considerable, perhaps irreparable, damage had already been done. With accusation and counter-accusation flying between campaigners and the council, Argyll and Bute has provided a salutary lesson in how a school closure programme can go badly wrong.
Critics said the original list used evidence selectively. The council was accused, too, of "basic errors" in calculating government finance, occupancy levels and demographics.
One study, on Outer Hebrides migration, was by Hall Aitken, whose research director, Denis Donoghue, said it had been used in a "wholly unjustified" manner.
Cleland Sneddon, the council's community services executive director, felt impelled to refute accusations in a lengthy statement on the authority website, in which he railed against "those who thrive on rumour such as under-informed and unregulated bloggers".
In this climate of suspicion, the council has been bombarded with 378 freedom of information requests in recent months - one asking for 152 pieces of information. Responses have made campaigners even less trustful. Frequently cited is advice from former Clackmannanshire Council chief executive Keir Bloomer, hired to advise the council, who recommended diverting attention from last year's impressive HMIE report for nine-pupil Minard Primary (which now has a roll of 10). Campaigners were angered by an increasing sense that finance alone was driving the closure programme.
"What the council inadvertently did was radicalise a whole bunch of communities," says Mr MacDonald.
Mrs Morton is careful not to criticise those who drew up the original list, but says she would not have included certain schools. Communities are unconvinced that her approach will be any different. People joke about whether, given their strength of feeling, it is safe for Mrs Morton to visit.
She believes the closures issue would not have received so much attention if the Education Secretary were not also a parliamentary candidate. When Mrs Morton attempted to clarify her criteria for closures last month, Mr Russell's riposte - as an aspiring local MSP, not a government minister - was to issue a press release denouncing her statement as "mince".
"If politically we are determined to keep small schools and rural schools open, we need to realise there is a significant cost to all other children in a council and the rest of Scotland," says Mr Stodter. He believes it would be fairer if all children and parents in an authority were consulted on school closures.
Mr Stodter, who closed schools while education director at Aberdeen City Council and believes a long-term approach involving one or two closures a year works best, says parents' qualms always subside after a school closes and they can see the advantages.
In East Ayrshire, Mr Short objects to the "two-tier" system created by legislation. At a time when councils need freedom to navigate their way through the financial mire, he stresses that all schools are important to their communities.
"History has recorded that there isn't any example of a rural community in the UK failing because a school has closed," he adds.
Sandy Longmuir, chair of the Scottish Rural Schools Network, says other councils - he cites Highland and Aberdeenshire - are watching Argyll and Bute with interest, waiting to see just how much freedom they have to slash school estates.
For all the rancour bubbling in Argyll and Bute and beyond, there is one sentiment, summed up by Mr Longmuir, on which all sides agree: "The next few weeks and months are going to be seminal for the Act, and for the future of rural education in Scotland."
Earmarked for closure in Argyll and Bute
- Ardchattan Primary
- Achaleven Primary
- Ardchonnel Primary
- Minard Primary
- Luss Primary - Ashfield Primary
- Toward Primary
- North Bute Primary
- Skipness Primary
- Clachan Primary
- Rhunahaorine Primary
- St Kieran's Primary
Mapped out: There are 12 schools in the region threatened with closure.
Original headline: Sink or swim as rural schools battle against the rising tide