Small schools are at the heart of a mighty education debate

13th January 2012 at 00:00
Evidence to the commission on rural education is now being considered - let's just hope the response is not predetermined

As long-standing director of education in Scotland's smallest and one of its most remote council areas, I feel well qualified to contribute to the national debate on "rural education". I have been involved in four school closures over the years and my council was in the process of considering whether to move to statutory consultation on three more schools when the moratorium was announced. It is a hugely complex and heart-wrenching issue for communities, for elected members and for education leaders.

As the Commission on the Delivery of Rural Education has been gathering evidence from across the land, my own professional association, ADES, has had to consider whether there is a consensus view to submit. I suspect there are different opinions. Our various perspectives will have been shaped by where we have lived and where we have worked. The commission's call for evidence was highly structured and, I believe, asked the right questions.

I see no evidence from Orkney's schools that Curriculum for Excellence is jeopardised in rural settings. All our schools are categorised as rural but are doing well in planning and delivering CfE. I acknowledge that it is trickier in very small schools, some on small islands with rolls of 15 or less, where social and peer interactions are more limited, but these problems are not insurmountable.

We have established mini learning communities "across the water" and children often meet with peers from other island schools for well-planned learning activities. I truly believe CfE is a red herring in this debate. In fact, there are considerable added benefits for rural schools. Outdoor learning is literally on the doorstep and, for me, that's worth a lot.

Sustainability is a big issue for councils with small rural schools - you can't ignore unit costs, travel times and costs, access to facilities or recruitment of staff. Finding teachers and leaders who are prepared to relocate to very remote parts of Scotland has always been difficult. On the positive side, many individuals and families move to rural areas, fall in love with the community and the lifestyle, and settle there. These are often people with something of the "pioneer spirit" and their contribution to the community is considerable.

The definition of rural school needs to be looked at. In places like the isles, Highland, and Argyll and Bute, you will find that a 70-pupil school is regarded as a big school. The way in which funding is distributed to support rural schools is crazy and should be redefined to differentiate between school sizes of 70 and seven. At the moment, it's too black or white and there needs to be a smoother funding transition between these different sizes of schools. As far as I am able to understand the Byzantine mechanics of grant-aided expenditure, when a school increases in size beyond 70 pupils, a huge sum of money is wiped from the council's grant.

In the closure consultation process, much is made of the educational benefits statement. Of course, educational benefit should be very important in decision-making, but it shouldn't be paramount. Quality in small schools is variable and depends entirely on the calibre of leadership and of teaching at a point in time.

The current legislation attempted to inhibit financial arguments by moving the focus almost wholly to quality of education. All factors must be considered and weighed against each other, and the balance is different in each case.

The idea that finance can't be considered in the process is laughable. It's tautological that higher unit costs in one area mean fewer resources in another. The trick is to consider how these higher unit costs contribute to the wider community as a "total place". I believe that community impact is a real and quantifiable consideration. It is important to differentiate between circumstances where the school is literally the hub of a vibrant, though possibly fragile, rural community and those where this is emotive nonsense.

Many rural schools are sustained by middle-class placing requests, and their contribution to the community beyond increasing pupil numbers must be honestly evaluated. Parents who have the means to support rural placing requests actually transfer social and intellectual capital to these schools, and remove it from others. This can skew indicators, such as levels of attainment, when these are captured by the educational benefits statement.

It is right that consultation should be thorough, and the legislation intended to ensure this. However, the term is much abused and is often taken to mean "community referendum" and so the response is predetermined. The process is too bureaucratic, and takes too long. Few people understand it and so it isn't surprising to find errors or omissions, and these are seized upon by critics to discredit a council's best endeavours.

Finally, it's time to take politics out of deciding whether a school should be closed or not. I believe it's up to the politicians to establish policy and law. The cabinet secretary should not be placed in the invidious position of having to "referee" as well. In the same way as the policy-making and regulatory functions have been separated in bodies such as the former HMIE and General Teaching Council for Scotland, an independent body should be established and given the role of scrutinising councils' decisions and determining whether they are in accordance with the law. In this way, local democracy will be rightly protected.

Leslie Manson is deputy chief executive and executive director of education, leisure and housing in Orkney. He was president of the Assocation of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) from 2009-11.

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