Neil Munro looks at how Dumfries and Galloway is tackling the difficulties that face any rural authority
Dumfries and Galloway may be quintessentially Scottish, yet it is only 30 or so miles from Carlisle. Educationally, it might also be seen as a mirror image of Scotland with some strongly performing schools and some others.
The area came 10th out of the 32 authorities for numbers of pupils gaining five or more Standard grades 1-2 last year, and was in a similar position for five-plus Standard grades 1-4, which in each case is five points above the Scottish average.
But Higher results push the 16 secondaries into 13th place for numbers of pupils who achieved three or more Higher passes last year, which is three points above the average. Only two schools had a significant increase in the most demanding yardstick, pupils with five or more Higher passes.
Some 31 per cent of Dumfries and Galloway pupils moved on to higher education last year, matching the national average, but 17 other authorities sent more.
"We are beginning to struggle a bit," says Fraser Sanderson, the director in charge of Dumfries and Galloway's pound;78 million education service. "Performance in national examinations is moving nearer to the Scottish average in some respects rather than keeping ahead of it."
Mr Sanderson, aged 53, was appointed director last October after more than a year in an acting capacity. He says the area is changing, making life more difficult for schools than it used to be. "We've lost what you might call the good, solid farming families who were the backbone of many rural communities and their schools. At the same time there has been a loss of jobs which offered professional opportunities to people."
The authority is responding in a number of ways to raise attainment. These include study support, Easter schools, the Successmaker computer program to boost literacy and numeracy skills, the GOALS (greater opportunities to access learning in schools) project to encourage more pupils to think of higher education as an option and out-of-school activities.
Some schools have been experimenting with initiatives such as promoting study skills, encouraging pupils to take five Highers, raising awareness among staff about problems of boys' attainment and creating some single-sex classes.
In a frank assessment earlier this year, Mr Sanderson acknowledged that the council itself may have made a contribution to a falling-off in exam performance by reducing staffing standards and freezing the per capita allocations for books and materials due to financial constraints.
In Dumfries and Galloway there is also a more intractable problem. "The pool we are able to draw on for school leaders is diminishing considerably, both in quality and quantity," Mr Sanderson says.
All three secondary headships vacated in the past year had to be readvertised and there are very few applicatons for primary head posts. Despite the location, there is "surprisingly little" interest from south of the border, he says.
These problems are not unique to the south-west but recruitment difficulties nationally are likely to hit sparsely populated areas hardest, particularly if there are more lucrative jobs elsewhere. "A buoyant economy usually causes difficulties for education in that sense," Mr Sanderson says.
Although the McCrone committee is expected to come up with some of the answers in terms of teachers' salaries and workloads when it reports next week, it will not be able to solve some more deep-seated problems. Primary heads in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway are also class teachers, administrators, even social workers. Many applicants for headships also have working partners who will hope to find a job.
One possible solution for primaries could be cluster management, in which schools are linked under the leadership of one head. This has been tried in South Ayrshire and the Borders, where the main lesson seems to be that it involves significantly hard work on the head's part to make it a success. Dumfries and Galloway flirted briefly with an experiment involving Langholm and Eskdalemuir primaries but gave up after the head retired. But clustering could be an alternative to school closures, which are on the cards again, with area reviews beginning in August.
Surprisingly, the council has only closed 17 schools in the past 20 years, though the future of Auldgirth primary is currently the subject of public consultations. But value for money imperatives and the eagle eye of the Accounts Commission have brought added pressures. And primary rolls in the area are set to fall by 10 per cent over the next eight years.
Mr Sanderson accepts the prospect of a bruising round of school closures with weary resignation. He has done his best to come up with ground rules based on guiding principles covering educational, financial and community factors.
The education arguments for closure are often "difficult to stack up," he says. If management or school performance are issues, that is something the authority should be able to sort out. While children benefit from socialising with their fellow pupils in larger schools, there is no evidence that they suffer from being in smaller schools. And closing small schools does not lead to significant savings, Mr Sanderson acknowledges.
Dumfries and Galloway Council, run by a coalition of Independent, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National Party and Labour members, is treading warily before embracing public-private partnership finance to renew its school building stock. It is market testing the viability, cost and potential interest from the private sector in funding an upgrade of all 131 schools or, as an alternative, refurbishing the 16 secondaries. A report by consultants Caledonian Economics is due by July.