Small schools have a right to flourish

4th November 2005 at 00:00
To suggest that larger set-ups are better places to learn is damaging nonsense, says Michael Russell

Careless talk costs lives" was a wartime slogan which appeared on posters, in which gossiping civilians were being earwigged by shifty-looking German spies. Today, we feel under no such pressure to keep our lips buttoned but careless talk can still have unforeseen, and very damaging consequences.

To prove this, let me call in evidence Judith Gillespie. Mrs Gillespie's official title is that of development manager for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. But she does many other things, most notably popping up regularly as an "expert" commentator on any educational story that makes the mainstream media. She is also a board member of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and, indeed, was recently reappointed by Peter Peacock for a second term.

During my own tenure as shadow education minister, I found Judith Gillespie to be helpful, knowledgable and - when pursuing a particular cause - tenacious. She must have given evidence to the Scottish Parliament's education committee as often as, if not more often than, anyone else and she had the unusual distinction of being respected across party boundaries.

Her appointment to the SQA, just as it was sorting itself out, was seen as sensible and positive.

Alas, her long-standing position as a parental guru has perhaps made her a little more unguarded than she should be. For, during September, she was asked by the Edinburgh Evening News to comment on the possibility of school closures in Edinburgh and she did, saying: "Keeping empty schools open is not a sensible use of resources. Children would get a much better education if they were taught in a larger primary with better resources than in a much smaller one."

No one could dispute the first part of that quote, for no one would try to keep empty schools open. But the second part is unadulterated nonsense. It is also damaging nonsense, for such careless talk from someone who has the ear of the Scottish Executive will be used by the Executive - and by endless councils - to justify closures of schools which are far from empty but which are, undoubtedly, small.

I know many parents with children at small schools who were devastated by Mrs Gillespie's quote, particularly as it was repeated in other newspapers.

Mrs Gillespie herself must have had some voluble grief from lots of them for, several days later, she wrote a letter to the Herald trying to explain her position. However, she merely made the matter worse, for she brought forward a range of statistics that attempted to assert that we have, and will continue to have, a falling population - but which produced no argument at all for closing small schools.

It can only be to the advantage of cash-strapped councils if an image of ageing, unsuitable buildings in which a few children rattle about in almost Dickensian conditions is the one that springs into the public mind when closures are mooted. It is even better for them if there is some prevailing view that a falling population has left whole swathes of the country as empty deserts which require no services since there is no one left to use them.

In reality, most closures affect buildings that have had substantial work done on them in recent years, and are therefore more than fit for purpose.

In addition, they are usually in places in which the rural population has stabilised and in which it is increasing, or has the potential to increase if services are maintained.

Of course, communities threatened by school closures always have to overcome these impressions among the wider population but Mrs Gillespie's statement will have made that job more difficult. They also have to fight councils which manipulate, and at times actively distort, the figures. Mrs Gillespie has, no doubt unwittingly, greatly aided them.

For example, the inspectorate continues to apply concepts of space and its preferred usage which are hopelessly out of date and which vastly overestimate the capacity of any small school. Consequently, they are able to conspire with councils to suggest that schools are less than half-full when, in terms of modern needs, they are packed to the doors.

Mrs Gillespie is, of course, entitled to her opinion. But with positions of influence and responsibility come an obligation to ensure that, if personal opinions are proffered, they are always heavily flagged up as such. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council would find parent and teacher participation much slimmed down if it was thought for a moment that it had a policy position against small schools. Almost every parent and teacher who has experience of such schools wishes them to be protected against an Executive whose propensity for centralisation almost rivals that of Stalinist Russia and against councils that are too keen to do the Executive's bidding.

For there is no evidence whatsoever that supports a view that "a better education" can only be found in larger schools. Many children flourish, but others only find their metier in a more intimate environment. Technology, the right approach to learning and inspirational leadership can provide a first-class experience for young people, no matter the size of the roll: to say otherwise diminishes the achievements of generations of Scottish teachers.

Moreover, if Mrs Gillespie's view of what is desirable is taken to its ultimate conclusion, then what will result is just what her later justification implies is already in place: our vast rural hinterland emptied as people migrate to where the services are - schools, hospitals, shops and everything else.

And a final word of warning. Doom-saying on population may be received wisdom these days, but Mrs Gillespie's dire forecasts are as inaccurate as the rest of her statement - as the registrar general confirmed only last month. So closing schools now might mean we just had to open them again in a few years' time.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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