Aberdeenshire Council has set out what may be the clearest set of criteria for rural school closures anywhere in Scotland, in which it questions the ability of very small primaries to make the most of Curriculum for Excellence and argues that pupils suffer from having few peers.
But local officials' seeming determination to close a number of primaries has run into a big obstacle in Education Secretary Michael Russell, who has moved to give two of Aberdeenshire's smallest schools a chance of survival. Meanwhile, few - if any - other local authorities seem likely to push ahead with similarly rigid criteria for considering school closures.
Aberdeenshire has agreed in principle on several criteria:
- No child should be educated in a school with fewer than three contemporaries (within two school years in either direction);
- No rolls of 19 or fewer, or rolls at risk of falling below 19;
- No journeys to school of more than 45 minutes;
- Any town school at below 66 per cent of its capacity, within a town whose primary schools are at less than 75 per cent capacity overall;
- Any school building whose condition or fitness for purpose is categorised level D.
Based on rolls last September, 56 of Aberdeenshire's 151 primaries are at less than 66 per cent of capacity, although many are not in towns. The authority insists that schools should be at least 80 per cent full - but only 57 primaries are in that position.
Fourteen primaries have 19 pupils or fewer, or are projected to fall within that bracket by 2016.
A report from education director Maria Walker had argued that Curriculum for Excellence approaches, such as co-operative learning, depended heavily on carefully developed group activities.
"It is not unreasonable to assert that most such group activities should be with peers of roughly the same age," it stated. "Without these opportunities to work closely, regularly and frequently with peers of the same age, there are genuine concerns that a pupil's educational progress may not be as purposeful as it could be."
It was "very difficult" in one-teacher schools to provide all pupils with the "full range of expertise" a larger teaching staff would offer, the report added.
But Sandy Longmuir, chair of the Scottish Rural School Network, challenged Aberdeenshire Council to come up with evidence for its reasoning, which, he said, "doesn't stack up".
HMIE reports showed very small schools doing exceptionally well and, he added, Curriculum for Excellence was designed to work in schools of any size. To use the peer group argument, Mr Longmuir said, made no sense when research frequently showed how well home-schooling worked.
John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, did not know of another authority which had set out criteria as specifically as Aberdeenshire; most preferred to take a case- by-case approach.
It was a valid argument, Mr Stodter said, that Curriculum for Excellence might prove difficult in very small schools, but he stressed that children in primaries with a roll of six or seven "could have a very good quality of experience".
Aberdeenshire's recommendations on school closures were passed before Mr Russell announced a moratorium on rural school closures, but the authority will press on with consulting on the general principles it has laid out; a report will follow in October.
Mr Russell moved last month to call in the proposed closures of Aberdeenshire's Logie Coldstone and Clatt primaries, under the Schools (Consultation) (Scotland) Act 2010.