Tide turns at Holyrood on school closures

THE Scottish Parliament drew back from an early confrontation with local authorities over school closures this week. But it is now clear that Holyrood will become a powerful new dimension.

A report for the education committee of MSPs by Cathy Peattie, a Labour backbencher, was sharply critical of Argyll and Bute over its handling of closure plans for six primaries, which were shelved "meantime" by the council on Wednesday.

The report suggested that parents had been presented with inaccurate information and that Accounts Commission guidance on school occupancy levels had been misinterpreted.

Ms Peattie's inquiry was sparked by the new parliamentary procedure which allows individual members of the public to petition committees. Professor Neil Kay had lodged his protest on behalf of the school board at Toward primary, one of the threatened schools.

Although her report was more tentative, Ms Peattie told the committee in Edinburgh on Tusday that she believed the council had not given parents a fair hearing and had conducted the closure process in a way which was "prejudicial" to their interests.

The committee decided, however, simply to tell Argyll and Bute to take account of its criticisms and to think again. It also acknowledged the council's financial problems and members said they would support the authority's case for the special islands needs allowance enjoyed by the northern and western isles.

Argyll estimates that the extra costs of its islands are pound;4.5 million, which is not covered by Government grant.

Ironically, Mike Russell and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP members on the committee, wanted to take a harder line with Argyll and Bute, where Campbell Cameron, an SNP councillor, is education chairman. It was left to Lewis Macdonald, a Labour member, to urge caution and warn that criticisms of Argyll and Bute could equally be levelled at other authorities.

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