Three-year breathing space

Western Isles Council has decided to delay pupils' transfer from its unique P1-S2 schools until 2011. Elizabeth Buie reports

All seven S2 schools in the Western Isles are to be closed - but not until 2011 at the earliest, following a vote by the full council last week.

In a compromise, councillors voted to delay pupils' transfer from the islands' unique P1-S2 schools to the six-year Nicolson Institute in Stornoway or Sgoil Lionacleit on Benbecula for at least three years. Some pupils had been due to move to larger schools this term, but councillors wanted the building of a new Nicolson Institute to be completed.

The decision leaves one of the educational justifications for closing the S2 schools in tatters, however. Murdo Macleod, the director of education, had argued that the S2 schools were not educationally viable under the new Curriculum for Excellence model, which splits the secondary curriculum into two integrated sections - S1-3 and S4-6 - and is intended to be cross-curricular. The issue is likely to form part of HMIE's scrutiny of the council's education functions this month.

A specially-commissioned report into the implications of upgrading the seven S2 secondaries to become S3 schools, able to deliver the third and fourth levels of A Curriculum for Excellence, found it would cost nearly Pounds 1 million to increase the staffing, curricular resources and extra accommodation and a further Pounds 120,000 in transport costs. The cost of deferring their closure until the new Nicolson Institute is built was put at Pounds 1.2 million.

The report, by education consultant David Alexander, said pupils remaining in an S2 school were likely to have a more limited choice of educational experiences and outcomes and, when moving to S3 in one of the larger schools and studying at the fourth level of ACfE, were likely to be disadvantaged compared to those who had embarked on "knowledge-rich subject lines" in S2.

Alasdair Allan, SNP MSP for the Western Isles, told The TESS: "People will be pleased that another three years have been given to the schools, because of how popular they are. But they will be unhappy about their longer-term future.

"The council has not convincingly explained its argument that the new curriculum can't be delivered in two-year schools; the view of the Government is that it can. We are in a situation where the schools will be operating this curriculum, despite the fact the council took a decision in advance that they couldn't and had to be closed for that reason."

Four of the seven schools may yet be reprieved completely, as their closure has to be sanctioned by Government ministers because pupils will have to travel more than 10 miles to their new school.

The Scottish Government's new bill on rural school closures creates a presumption against closures, but is not retrospective.

Mr Allan said: "The Government has made clear its stance - the onus would be on councils in the future to explain why rural communities should lose their schools, rather than communities having to explain why they should not lose them. A significant power balance is being changed by this bill."

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